Friday, October 21, 2011

Guess WHo is coming for dinner . . .

     Our community meal provided another one of those “God moments” which I have come to enjoy. As is our habit at St. Alban’s, I was asking those present what they preferred next month. In years past, they have asked us to avoid turkey because everyone kept bringing turkey. More recently, however, at least with the dip in the economy, turkey for November has been rare at the site. This year, they asked for a real thanksgiving dinner: “you, know, Father, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, the works!” The request by some of the “old guard” of the meal did not set well with some of the newer faces. “Who do you think you are to tell him what to bring?” “Had he not wanted to know, he would not have asked.” All I could do was smile and hope that Thelma had heard the exchange from her position near His throne. But, little did I know, there was still more teaching to come.

     Three of the so-called old guard asked me if I had a relationship with a particular pastor. I had known this pastor for almost 4 1/2 years. “Would you mind speaking to him about the quality of the food his church?” For the next few minutes, I heard story after story about how a church was outsourcing its service ministry. A food preparer was being paid by a wealthy church to create a nice meal for the homeless, hobos, and hungry. Knowing this pastor and a few of the members of his church, I have no doubt that this effort was well-intentioned. People are busy. Cooking for up to 135 people takes time. If one has the resources, why not farm it out? Plus, if a restaurant is given the business, they are usually well prepared to create a seamless meal for so many people. Those of us who still do it ourselves often end up with a hodgepodge of food. Even when we try and make the same things, we all have our personal flair to recipes which end up making some items a bit different. The problem, at least as seems to be according to the stories, is that the business tasked with preparing the meal is a bit more concerned with the profit and less concerned about feeding the hungry. The attitude seems to be “Beggars cannot be choosy.” Why was this a great teaching? Let me digress a moment and then I will get to the rest of the story.

     I had been at St. Alban’s less than two weeks when the invitations came. In the course of a couple days, Charlie, Robin, and Sue all invited me to go to the Community Meal. Being a new pastor and wanting to get an idea in which ministries the church and the members of the congregation participated, I quickly obliged. It was a well-oil machine. The food was set out buffet style, the bread was buttered, and servers were ready to go. I asked for an “out of the way job” and was handed a gallon of milk by Charlie and told to head into the dining area. I had a blast! People were asking for a drink, for blessings, and for prayer. Talk about an awesome ministry. Plus, I was accompanied by about 14 parishioners, and that didn’t include those who had made or purchased the food and were not there with us to serve. This was Gospel ministry at its best.

     Little did I know that my simple willingness to serve and watch would ingratiate me with the spiritual matriarch of the church. 45 years before I arrived (5 years before I was born), Thelma and two friends had noticed the hungry in our community and had decided to do something about it. The Catholic Workers’ House agreed to host a meal that these ladies would prepare. Over time, the ministry grew. It grew both in terms of numbers served and in terms of churches participating. Looking back on the history of the ministry, it is no wonder.

     Thelma shared that the ladies wanted to make it a meal. Some places did soup and bread. They wanted a meal. They recognized that the need was so great, more people, preferably more churches, would be needed. What could have been viewed as their personal fiefdom was, instead, thought of as an effort that needed way more help. It was also important to them that the meal be a sit-down meal rather than brown bag or take out. This, as one can imagine, can caused some logistics issues over the years. It is far easier to find places from which to distribute food than to find places where people, perhaps not bathed and a bit unkempt, can sit down and eat.

     When I asked Thelma about this last bit, she explained that the ladies had felt they wanted to get to know those whom they intended to help. Giving them a bag of food and sending them on their way kept the process too sanitary. They wanted to hear the stories, to get to know the victims of hunger, so they could maybe help fix some of the root causes. The ministry grew, she explained, and was able to survive attacks by local politicians because the recipients were no long anonymous faces. They were real people with real problems. I should add, as a by note, that Thelma was driven by her encounters to do, or make her beloved husband do, some amazing things for those placed in her path. Can you imagine washing the underwear of the homeless in your community? Thelma (via Norm) did it. Can you imagine helping the homeless in your community get a job? Thelma did it. Can you imagine going to the culverts and abandoned houses and delivering food to those too sick or too afraid to come to the meal site? They did it. Can you imagine taking individuals from your homeless community to the doctor and paying for the visit because you feared they had tuberculosis, pneumonia, or some other serious ailment? They did it. Theologically speaking, Thelma’s ministry was a restoration of dignity. Those ladies that gathered together with that new idea in the 1960’s understood, even if they could not articulate, that part of our job as Christians is to remind people whose image they bear. Said more simply, she simply tried to remind them of the dignity with which they were created and of the Father who loved them deeply.
Fast forward more than fifty years. Homeless people were speaking up and asking someone to speak gently about the food being served. While the new faces were telling them they had no right to criticize the food, the old guard was saying “yes we do. Like them, we are children of God and ought not be expected to eat garbage. If they are His children, they should be making or buying real food.” It sounds a bit ungrateful to the ears of some, but the man who runs they shelter says this particular third party food is by far the worst that they eat. But is it ungrateful for the hungry to call those blessed with food in abundance to account? I think not.

     As disciples of Christ you and I are called to be good stewards of whatever resources He gives us. We are also called to love our neighbors as ourselves. And we are to remember that when we clothe the poor or feed the hungry, we have clothed and fed Him. As it turns out, this other church simply was not doing quality control. Nobody there was tasting the food (they were making sure every bite was available for the hungry). Now that they know what is going on, I am sure the quality will improve or the contract will be cancelled. But how many of us, when we are serving the hungry the few times that we do it settle for “that’s good enough?” How many of us cut corners when fixing food for the hungry? How many of us serve food that we would not serve our families , let alone our Lord were He to join us for a meal? And how many reading this brief summary of a Wednesday night’s meal thought that the homeless were ungrateful to criticize the food? How dare they? In our faith tradition, the Eucharist becomes that “pledge” which reminds us of the bridal feast to which He calls us. In our ministry, the food that we serve at meals can serve the same purpose. Our meals, done right, can serve as moments of hope for the hopeless and as a reminder of the love with which our God holds them. IF WE REMEMBER HIS CALL AND IF WE REMEMBER IT IS HIM WHO WE SERVE IN THE FACES OF THOSE PRESENT. So, what are you making for your next effort to feed the hungry in your midst? Do you think He would like it? Or would He look at you with those knowing eyes and wonder why you settled for good enough knowing that the King was present?

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