Sunday, September 02, 2007

Pentecost 14 - Year C

“I want you to visit with folks,” she said. I didn’t really know what she meant but I was willing to do what I was told.

My first day at St. John’s Soup Kitchen began with a tour of the place. It was called “St. John’s Soup Kitchen” because it was housed in the St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church gym. Not a terribly creative name but at least you knew what it was and where you could find it.

But someone had an idea to change the name, something that wouldn’t sound so dowdy and utilitarian. Something to reflect the culture of the place.

The person who ran the place wanted to call it the “Duke Street Diner.” Her vision was that the soup kitchen wouldn’t just be a place for homeless folks to grab a bite, but she saw a community centre where people from all over downtown would meet, play cards, hang out, chat, do whatever. From 9:00 ’till 2:00, Monday to Friday. Except for holidays.

But some church bureaucrat put the kibosh on the name change saying that the name “Duke Street Diner” wouldn’t reflect the purpose. He let them drop the “soup” part from the name since they didn’t have soup everyday. And so they became “St. John’s Kitchen.” A modest concession but completely missing the point.

“St. John’s has a mandate to serve the poor,” he said, “and the poor need to be able to find soup kitchens.”

Folks were disappointed, but really, the name didn’t make the mission. But the new name would have built on what was already happening.

When I arrived on my first day I thought I’d be chopping veggies, slopping soup, or at least loading the dishwasher or mopping the floor.

“I want you to visit with folks,” Gretchen, the Lutheran-turned-Anglican manager told me. Gretchen was a former Missouri Synod Lutheran, or “Misery Synod, as she called it”

She started at St. John’s after her husband walked out on her and the kids, emptying the bank account along the way. Her pastor told her that divorce was a sin and wouldn’t give her communion. So she stopped going to church. She thought God didn’t want her anymore than her husband did. She knew that her church didn’t want her.

“I’m damaged goods,” she would say. Plus, there was no practical way to get back in fellowship with her church, even if she wanted to. How do you repent of something someone did to you? How do you repent of a philandering spouse?

She started off at St. John’s as a “patron” as they were called. She came looking for a sandwich and became the manager -and an Anglican – in that order, along the way.

“So you want me to sit with folks and clear tables, stack chairs, that sort of thing?” I asked.

“No, I mean your job is to sit at the table, eat your lunch, and talk to people.”

“That doesn’t sound like much of a job. Wouldn’t you rather I helped out with the cooking?”

“No. You don’t get to cook until you know who you’re cooking for,” she said, walking me to a table at the back.

“This is Kevin,” she announced to the three guys sitting together, “he’s new, so I want you to be nice. Kevin this is Bob, Harold, and Ed.”

Bob kicked out a chair. He was obviously the leader of the group. The Alpha male.

“Grab a seat, Kevin. Don’t just stand there like a lump.”

I sat down.

“Okay, here are the rules of this place. You get only one sandwich and one dessert. But you can have as much soup as you want.”


“Before you sit down at a table with someone make sure you ask first.”


“If you start a fight you’re banned for a week. Two fights and you’re banned for a month. If you’re dumb enough keeping scrapping, the third fight gets you kicked out for life. We don’t want you here if you’re just gonna be a jerk.”

That won’t be a problem. Who did he think I was?

Then, as if on cue to emphasize the point, a big bear of a man pushed over his table and sucker-punched the guy he was playing cards with. Apparently there was cheating going on. Which shouldn’t have been such a big deal since gambling was against the rules as well. But I guess someone’s honour was sullied and swift retaliation was called for.

The other patrons watched with the same anticipation the crowd gets at a hockey game when two enforcers drop their gloves.

But out came Gretchen from the kitchen– all four feet, eleven inches of her - grabbing the two bears by the collars, she dragged them across the gym and threw them out a waiting open door that someone had opened for her, as if following proper procedure. Clearly, this was not a rare occurrence.

Bob lifted his eyebrows and smiled at me.

“One last thing. No drinking before you come here. If Gretchen smells booze on your breath, well, you just saw what she can do.”

No booze before 9:00 am. Got it.

My eye caught a something that didn’t make sense. I turned and looked at the door and saw a 40ish man in a blue business suit walk towards our table.

“Hey John,” Bob said.

“Hey guys,” said John.

“Meet the new kid,” Bob said. “This is Ken.”

“Uh, Kevin,” I said “pleased to meet you,” and reached out to shake John’s hand. Which he received.

I then realized that I didn’t reach out to shake Bob’s, Harold’s, or Ed’s hand when I met them.

After some quick chit-chat, Bob, Ed, and Harold stood up, “Well, gotta go.”

“Where you off to today?” I asked.

“We’ll find out when we get there,” Bob replied.

The three left, leaving me alone with John.

“So, do you work around here?” I asked.

“Yeah, I manage the H&R Block at the Mall; I like to pop in here a few times a week. The sandwiches are awful, but the company’s good. Better than grabbing a burger and listening to the cackling teenagers at the food court.”

I smiled.

“So, you’re the new guy, eh?”

I nodded.

“Why here?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Why did you come to work here?” he asked. “It’s not as if you couldn’t find anything else to do with your time.”

“It’s better than hanging out at the mall with all those cackling teenagers,” I replied.

He laughed.

“I come,” he said, “because I learn more about life here than anywhere else - even church. These are folks living lives with the volume turned up, and that brings a coarse wisdom. I don’t want to sound like I’m romanticizing poverty, because there’s nothing romantic about poverty or addiction or homelessness.

“But these folks aren’t bogged down with petty politeness. They give it to you straight. Bob’s spent most of his life in prison for robbing a bank while high. But Harold, the one with the crazy eyes has a PhD in geography,” he said imitating Harold’s moon-sized stare, explaining why Harold ended up living like he does.”

“What about Ed?”

“Ed’s just weird,” John said without explanation. “So why are you here,” he asked again.

“I came to learn how to minister to the poor.”

That’s when Gretchen sat down.

“The poor are not someone you do ministry to,” she said, “That’s why everyone begins by visiting with the patrons, so when you serve people their sandwiches and soup you see people with names and stories, not just recipients of your gracious ministry. These are real people with real lives. They are not abstract poor. That MUST be the beginning of any ministry.”

I was quiet. I knew exactly what she meant.

I’m sure she had me figured out as soon as I walked through the door: a fresh-faced, well-scrubbed, middle-class, leftie do-gooder out to help “the poor,” whoever they were. And St. John’s was where poor people hung out. Doggonit, I was going to do what Jesus said to do.

Like today’s gospel reading when Jesus told his followers that when they throw a party, he didn’t want them to invite folks who could do the same for us. The law of reciprocity need not apply here.

But he said to invite the poor, the lame, the blind. He asks that we invite folks who smell, who drink too much, who use foul language. He asks that we invite those whose broken lives have been put back together with duct tape, those who may even start a fight.

Our hospitality committee has been hard at work devising strategies for welcoming people. But who will be we welcoming? Who is God gathering in to share in our Sunday morning banquet?

If we’re doing our job the way Jesus wants us to, then it could be anyone thirsty for living water and hungry for the bread of life. Or it could be someone looking for a cup of cold water or a sandwich.

And God asks that we welcome everyone like we’d welcome Jesus. Because we might just be entertaining angels unawares.

But that’s easier to say than it is to do. The ELW has asked me to administer a “caring fund.” Which I’m both generous with and protective of. Many families have been served by it, other times we’ve been taken advantage of. That’s just the messiness of life in a fallen world. A world that Jesus asks we minister to. Jesus never said it would be easy. He just asks that we do it.

A month or two after I started at St. John’s I was downtown waiting for the bus. A homeless man was sitting on the bench. Without thinking I sat down next to him and started chatting. I didn’t see him as a homeless man. I saw him as a patron. I told him how to get to St. John’s.

When the bus arrived I got on. I looked back at the fellow on the bench, wondering if I was ready to serve soup. Probably not. But soon.



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