I don’t know his name. In retrospect, I should have seen it coming. I was on another Wal-Mart run, this time in the early evening. The bell ringers were out. It was a very pleasant evening (warm by Iowa standards!). And, as I was going through my little list in my head, he started yelling at me. Fr. Brian! I didn’t know you shopped here. Why are you here? I need to pick up some things for the house. How’s it going? Now, I knew the bell ringer’s face, but I could not place it until he told me why. Why are you coming here? You should be at Hy-Vee or Fareway, not Wal-Mart. I laughed as he laughed and asked him why. You need better than Wal-Mart. By now I made it to him and asked him what he meant. You should be doing your shopping at a better store than here. Maybe you haven’t heard, but I have a lot of hungry mouths to feed. I can’t afford to shop at Hy-Vee or Fareway (except for meat, but THAT is another story). Wal-Mart enables us to stretch our budget. But, do you think you should be slamming Wal-Mart since they are letting you ring a bell out front? Bah! I don’t work for them, I work for the Salvation Army. Speaking of which, I need to thank you and your peeps. For what? Man, you guys made us turkey! Real turkey! And you carved the thing in front of us! And the mashed potatoes and gravy! Oh my God! It was amazing! And then, as if that weren’t enough, you guys followed the Thanksgiving meal with a Christmas meal that was just as good! You guys make me glad to be homeless and to eat at that site.
Those who know my parish will have figured it out, but the bell ringer was one of those whom we serve at the Community Meal every month. For fifty years, the people of my church have been serving the hobos, the homeless, and the hungry in Davenport a sit down meal. What humbles me about this parish is the effort each and every cook puts into the preparation of their dish. Ask them about why they put so much effort or time into it, and invariably a parishioner will respond that they want it fit for them or others in the church and for our Lord, if He walked through the door and sat down to eat our food. And it is an infectious attitude. You don’t want to be the one who makes the dish that is below St. Alban’s standards. You don’t want to be the one who ruins a meal. Trust me, it changes your perspective when you’re the one in charge of making a gallon or so of Thanksgiving gravy!
When I first arrived at St. Alban’s and was talking with local clergy, local business owners, and professionals about whether the church to which I was called would be missed were it to disappear, one of the clergy remarked that “everyone at your church worships food rather than God. They are all overweight, every single one of them.” I remembered the comment so clearly because so few people even knew the church was there. And, of those who remembered, one was calling the people fat. As I spent time among them and came to know them, I realized that the clergy who had made the remark did not know the parishioners. First of all, there were some skinny members and healthy members. To be sure, we have more overweight. But it is not like most people are inactive. They simply love food and don’t exercise enough. They exercise and work hard, just not enough to stay lean and mean. Serving among them, I began to ask the lay leaders about the clergy person’s observations. What I learned was that this was a group which had had it planted in their DNA that, in order to earn the right to share the Gospel with people, they first had to serve them. Much of what we do, Father, revolves around food because that is an easy way to serve others and to earn that right to share the Gospel. They feed and then they minister. I seem to have read that pattern somewhere before . . .
Anyway, I told the bellringer/man we had served at Community Meal that we did not serve them meals to encourage them to accept their circumstance. We served the meals and feasts to remind them that God still loved them. We wanted to give them hope and encourage them to seek a better life or way out, not stay contentedly in the shelters or sewers or under the bridges. I know all that! I just can’t get over how many churches don’t. And then he started yelling to people entering or leaving. It’s Christmas! You should find your way to a church and thank God! And if you don’t have a church, you should go to this man’s church at Fairmount and West Central Park! They are real Christians! They not only tell you that God loves you, but they show you! This went on for four or five minutes. He stopped people and described watching Patti carve the turkey and placing it upon his plate. He smacked his lips over the gravy and the pie. He told how we even brought veggies to given them important vitamins and minerals. He told how the bread smelled and felt. He even bragged about Pauline’s ambrosia because it wouldn’t be St. Alban’s night without her marshmallow salad. People as far away as the other entrance to the east and Gamestop to the west heard him and stopped for a second to listen when he was yelling. Others would stop and listen to him describe portions of the meals to those unfortunate enough to have been captured by his enthusiasm. I kept trying to get him to quiet down. I did not want him getting in trouble with Wal-Mart harassing the customers. He ignored me. Finally, after a couple minutes, he returned to our conversation. You think anyone heard me, Father? Only those with ears, I laughed. Think they’ll come? I don’t know. Most probably won’t. Well, it seems to me, the least I can do is advertise for you. I told him that he owed us nothing. Our meal, like our Lord’s grace, was freely given. I know that. But just like you guys can’t help but feed us the way that you do to show God how thankful you all are, I need to share with others how your peeps make us all feel, at least for a few minutes every single month. God bless you and yours Father.
There is nothing one can say to such proclamations but thank you. I turned and headed into Wal-Mart to get whatever it was I was there to get. “Maralyn” stopped me again. Is it true? I begged her pardon as my head was elsewhere, trying to figure out what had just happened. Is it true that you make Thanksgiving meals and Christmas meals for the Salvation Army? I told her it was. Why? Well, to make a really long story short, it seems to be the best way for us to reach people. What do you mean? Ever had someone come up and just start telling you about God and how you needed him without really getting to know you? You bet! Christians are great at that. I asked her how it made her feel. I don’t know. I guess it depended on my mood. Usually it just made me angry. You said “Christians are great at that.” I take you are not since that is a different group? Yeah. I tried a few times to get into the church thing, but it just wasn’t for me, know what I mean? Yes and no. What do you mean? Well, it was for me. I need to be in church. But I also understand how churches can turn people off when they do things wrong, when they forget Whom they serve. If it means anything to you, I am sorry that other Christians have been a little too aggressive in their enthusiasm to share their love of God with you. Oh, them I get. What I don’t get is the threat. You know “if you don’t believe you are going to hell.” Why begin a conversation like that? Does it ever work? How can you be so sure. Stuff like that. Gotcha. Well, I am sorry that’s how you have been exposed to our Lord. Sometimes I am, too. Why do you say that? I can’t talk now, but maybe another time I’ll share with you why I am like that. . . She moved to place a sticker on a customer's return item. I waited, and another approached her, and so I moved on . . . for now.
We talk of ripples in our encounters for His glory. Our relationships and encounters with others go so far beyond what we see and hear, like the ripples from the splash of a rock in a still pond. What was going on this Advent was truly amazing. God was using our service of Him to reach so many individual lives. From “I think I accidentally sold my soul” to the atheist to the lady who wanted her family to understand her perspective on death to the bell ringer to those in the neighborhood so worried about 2012 being the end of the world to the couple that witnessed our singing at the Alzheimer’s home, God was using very simple acts, our efforts to be obedient, and total strangers to reach into the lives of people in our community. Apparently, those in my church have earned the right to be heard by many of those who now reject Himor are seeking Him. Put another way, they and I are now being asked to give a true accounting of our faith. Was all of that for “Maralyn” sake? Did God set up these encounters, cause me to forget so many things when shopping so that I had to make so many trips, and whatever else that went on simply for the sake of reaching into Maralyn’s life? Yes and no. Although He died for each one of us, He also died for all. As we look back thankfully upon and birth and look forward expectantly upon His return, it is important for us to remember the faces and stories of those whom He calls. They are the face whom you and I meet and see every day of our lives. Yes. He brought comfort to the lady who accidentally sold her soul. But her worry and her peace spoke volumes to Maralyn, just as much as a bell ringer shouting in a parking lot. In a few days time, as we approach the babe thankful for what He has done and will do for us, we would do well to fall upon our knees and give thanks to the God who humbled Himself so, and who raised us to heights unimaginable and undeservedly, that His name might be glorified eternally.