There was much talk on Facebook those days, about the boots that the police officer gave to a guy who was sitting shoeless on the streets of NYC. The officer saw him and reacted out of compassion and bought him warm socks and boots.
And someone took a picture as it happened and posted it on Facebook and we love the fact that he did this and so we all, millions of us, me included, we shared that picture of compassion.
And someone thought it would be great to follow up and find the guy-who-got-the-boots, and they found him and he wasn't homeless and he was barefoot again. He didn't have the boots. It turns out, also, another women came forward and she had given the guy-who-got-the-boots shoes, too, a few weeks earlier.
And so we started blaming poor people and homeless people and alcoholics and people with mental illness, we, those of us who have enough, we were hurt by this story. I'm not poking fun here, honestly, I personally was hurt to imagine that the guy didn't appreciate the gift. It felt like a scam. It made my heart hurt.
How on earth can we change the world if it goes like this: we see a problem and we figure a solution, and we pour out our compassion, and then it turns out that that solution wasn't the right one?
All this happens and I come home from being on the streets, and I'm upset that Sam got sick and had his hours reduced, and so now he is homeless. Every time I talk to him he wants to talk about how to get his brother to let him see his grandmother. I want to talk to him about how to get housing, but what bothers him, in 24 degree weather, what bothers him is that his brother won't listen. “How can I get him to understand” Sam asks me. And I listen to him.
And I'm upset about Jack who sleeps in the woods near Institute Park. Jack waits until after 2am, so the police won't wake him, and he is not worried about finding housing. He is worried about his next appointment with the pain specialist. Because two years ago he had leg surgery and they did something wrong and now it hurts all the time, and he's been clean from drugs for five years, but as an addict he can't take most drugs for pain so they are going to give him a cortisone shot but they can't do that for two more weeks. I want to talk to him about moving inside while he waits, but he won't talk about that, he will only talk about whether cortisone will work, and why can't he get an earlier appointment.
And so I'm hurt by the fact that Sam won't let me help him to get housing, and I'm hurt that Jack won't go inside, and I'm hurt by this damn not-homeless-guy in New York and I come into my house and I sit down on my lovely couch, where there is this quilt.
This quilt was made by Mary Jane Eaton, one of the founders of Worcester Fellowship. When I asked her about the colors, because really, not everyone puts purple and orange together in a quilt, and she said simply, well, “Liz, God is orange”.
And yet it’s true, the quilt exudes God. It exudes God not because of its calming, homogenous, single color charm. It exudes God because it emphasizes difference. The purple and the orange, so different from each other, trying to hang out together, expressing God together.
I think the trick to expressing God is the differences. It is the way we notice that we aren't all the same. The way we trust that our differences are a good thing. You've got to love the fact that we, human beings, are completely different from each other.
So different, that we can't know what another person needs without talking to them. Without asking them. Without spending time finding out what is happening in their life, and in their week, and in their day, and in this very minute. We can't just declare "people need this" and have that turn out to be the right answer. We can’t see a guy with bare feet and know that what he needs is shoes.
I know that I am uncomfortable with recognizing difference in that way. For me, when it’s cold and you have bare feet, boots sure seem like the answer, and naked hands and heads need gloves and hats. The solution to hot days is water and juice boxes. I want to stick with what I know, what I feel, what I would want.
To find out what someone else wants I have to stop and listen before I provide boots, hats, water, juice. Yes, in fact, I have to listen before I know if a person without a house is looking to get one. It takes time. It takes effort. It takes closing my mouth and listening.
Shared Ministry starts with listening. Trusting people to know their own needs. Trusting God that if we help people in the ways they say they want help, perhaps later they’ll help us by wanting shoes, or hats, or houses.
#5loaves2fish12volunteers #RoadTriptotheGoose #WildGoose2021
Sometimes it Doesn't Work
Shared ministry is a great thing. Many people want to help serve food, cook food, distribute food. When people who are food secure and people who food insecure work together, relationships are built. With a little planning your food ministry can create church.
And some things won’t work along the way. People volunteer who can’t do what they volunteered to do. You will miss deadlines, fill out forms incorrectly, and not get some grants. You will run out of food and throw away excess food, sometimes at the same meal.
Sometimes the failure is small. I volunteered at a church where a volunteer could not stop reprimanding the others coming through the line. It took far too long for one of the organizers to notice and move him to another task.
At another food pantry I handed out restaurant style bags of creamy Italian salad dressing to shoppers for 2 hours before someone came by and told me it was actually white gravy.
At a meal program I visited one of the “volunteers” helped out just long enough to steal a huge case of chicken breasts.
Sometimes failure is devastating. After my book came out one of the leaders at a meal program went back to drinking. It took months of re-negotiating boundaries, trying to offer help, and running their program without all the volunteers needed before they faced the reality that church had to let them go. Besides the huge struggle to provide dinner weekly, so many relationships were broken.
Volunteers struggle when their mental health takes a turn for the worse. One person might stop taking their medications, another might find their medications less effective. Of course everyone get sicks sometimes. They get housing and jobs—obviously great for the volunteer, but then the ministry needs to be re-organized.
Or their might be a pandemic! (That’s the subject of another blog.)
Friday I was excited to visit Cafe Esperanza at Hope Lutheran Church in Reading. As readers of Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers know, Hope already has both a meal and a pantry. Now they are converting a house across the street into a “pay as you can” cafe.
The idea is brilliant! Eaters can donate the value of their meal, or more than the value of their meal, or they can take on a volunteer task and eat for free. The goal is nutritious, interesting food choices that meet the needs of people with food allergies and preferences.
And the food was amazing! A chicken curry made with local vegetables. Baked peach granola that was gluten and dairy free. There will always be vegan options. One of the volunteers was volunteering specifically to get access to food they cannot afford, food that meets their dietary needs.
Friday was their soft opening. Except it didn’t happen. Their cook found a job with higher pay just last week.
So the word went out that they were not yet open. Volunteers gathered at the cafe to fix a few things, to work on the wall-artwork, and to commiserate with the director. The board will meet Monday to figure out next steps.
The mood slipped around—a moment of despair followed by ideas for the future, a bit of hope, a vigorous round of problem solving, and then another bit of sadness. People described the tension of not knowing what is next.
Cafe Esperanza is going to open. Some day they’ll tell the story of this failure and it’ll seem like it was a blip in the path. The Holy Spirit knows how to create something new out of chaos and despair.
But today it just feels hard.
Road Trip With Stuff
I own a lot of stuff.
As I gather that stuff to start my #RoadTriptotheGoose it occurs to me that I may not need this much stuff. I read science fiction. Thus, as I pack my car I always imagine "what if this is all that I'll have if the world-as-we-know-it ends on this trip"?
What will I be sorry that I left behind? Certainly the 12 boxes of photos in my attic, which I have not looked at in more than 20 years. My sewing machine. Two bookshelves full of fabric. Hiking poles? Batteries? All these things are important, right? What is the modern day equivalent to the man who stores things up and the dies suddenly (Luke 12:16-21)? I do not have an excess of grain, does that mean I'm off the hook?
I once asked a woman in a small town in Guatemala if I could take her picture. She said yes, but she had to run home first to get her other dress. That is, she had two, the one she was wearing, and the other one, that was for pictures and church and weddings and such. I saw a woman in India wearing half her sari while she washed the other half. I know women in Worcester who go braless because bras for large sizes are in excess of $50 each.
In the meantime, I'm here debating whether I can go camping for four days with four outfits. What if it rains and one gets muddy?
Packing is the art of figuring out what things will be important for the next number of days. What will be the weather, and what will make me uncomfortable, and what do I want to eat? What will I wish I had with me for the end times?
It turns out that it is also time to reflect on my accumulation of things. What would it look like to live with less? And if I gave up my stuff, would I replace it with God?
So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God. -Luke 12:21
I don't have any answers. Lots of stuff and lots of questions.
For my organized thoughts, see my book Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers: Developing Relational Food Ministries. In this spot are thoughts that appear for a moment--about food programs, mission, church, building community, writing, and whatever else pops into my head.