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.
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.
I was eating lunch at an outdoor table with a few friends last week when several homeless guys walked by. One stopped a the table next to us and asked if they had any change.
One of my companions spoke up.
"They shouldn't do that." She said.
"Shouldn't do what?"
"They shouldn't ask people who are eating for change."
This is one of the difficulties of the street church pastor job. "They" aren't "they" anymore. I probably agree, its probably rude to ask people for money while they eat. But it's different to make such a statement when the person asking is Jo, or Jose, or Juan, not "that guy". And the more people I've met, the less I can see that guy as other. I don't know him, but I know others like him. I have people I could call friend who ask people--indeed who ask me, for change.
Many visitors to Worcester Fellowship ask about spare change.
"Should we give money to people we see on the streets?"
One answer is easy. "This ministry is not about giving people money. Worcester Fellowship doesn't give people money"
"But should we, you know, the rest of the time? Should we give people money?"
I've spent a fair amount of time searching for proof that the Bible doesn't ask us to give poor people money. Unfortunately, it does. In Proverbs it says "if someone asks you for money, give it to them." Damn.
"But won't they use it for alcohol, or drugs?"
"Yup, they will. Alcohol, drugs, cigarettes. And also for coffee at Dunkin' Donuts so they can use the bathroom. And phone cards so they can be called for jobs. And a chocolate bar. Lunch. A lottery ticket."
The fact is, except for cigarettes and drugs, I've used MY money for all those things, too.
Here is my advice. Decide for yourself about the money. But look the person in the eye when you say "yes" or "no". And ask "how are you today?" Smile. And think of them as "Jo" or "Jose" or "Juan" and not as "them". Maybe say a prayer.
People shouldn't have to ask people who are eating lunch for spare change. That I know for sure!
#5loaves2fish12volunteers #RoadTriptotheGoose #WildGoose2021
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.