Radical Love, The Evolution, Part 2

Ezekiel 34:11-16 For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

The next day came, but I was not present in it. I was still living in that one cold night. I was living in the arms of the man in the wheelchair. I was living in the eyes of the man on the ground. My heart was running through the cold, going face to face. The couple in the alley. The young woman, lost and delusional, wrapped in blankets and tucked into a store front. The bearded man in the church doorway. The skate kids outside of the shelter that had no more room that night. The mother with three young children. I told a few people what had happened. Moved by my stories, they gave me money. They said, “Do it again”.

The fire of that frozen evening was burning inside of me. I packed the church’s largest pot with chickens and made chicken and dumplings with carrots, peas and onions. I would take it to the local low barrier shelter, Love Overwhelming. The shelter was a center of controversy and some were fighting to shut it down. There was opposition to their policy of accepting people who were not sober. Drugs and alcohol were not permitted on premises, but one didn’t have to be sober to have a warm place on the floor. Neighbors complained of needles found on their property, of human waste found in their yards. I lived only a few blocks from the shelter. Though I did see people who were homeless walking on my street I had never been negatively effected by the their presence in my neighborhood nor by the shelter. To me, they were neighbors, like any neighbors. They were hurting neighbors. Hungry neighbors. Neighbors who needed my help. Tonight, I would bring them chicken and dumplings.

On my way out of the door, a friend from church handed me a grocery sack full of loose candy. “Candy,” I thought, “There is nothing nutritious or filling about candy.” But I took it, and my pot, and headed for Love Overwhelming.

As we approached the shelter I saw the line of people waiting at the door. It was almost eight o’clock, the time when the shelter opened its doors for the evening. People were lined up, waiting to check in. Heaps of backpacks and blankets punctuated the line. Mounded figures mixed among the standing shifted and some of the blankets came to life. I opened my trunk and a man who would come to be my friend approached me. “Do you need any help?” he asked. I did. The pot of chicken and dumplings was huge. I wasn’t able to lift it. I looked up, way way up, into the gentle face above me.

His cheeks were red from the cold, his blue eyes placid and kind. He smiled at me and, instantly, I felt welcomed. “Yes!” I told him, “This pot is heavy!” He lifted it with ease. My son, carrying the candy, leapt from the car. His joy burst out into the frozen parking lot. It sent out waves like a beacon, so powerful they were almost shining. “I’ll give them the candy!” he cried, and ran ahead.

My plan was to leave the pot, and the candy, and come back for the pot the next day. You may or you may not get your pot back, I was told. That was St. Stephen’s biggest pot. A good pot. I couldn’t risk not getting it back. I would have to stay and serve the chicken and dumplings myself, then take the pot with me. With my new, tall friend as escort, we moved through the halls of Love Overwhelming, taking our pot to the kitchen.

The halls were scattered with people who had already been checked in. One was headed for the shower. Others were waiting. My son, leaping with excitement behind me, was giving them candy. The worn carpets and empty, beige walls began to flicker, just a little, as his light rebounded off of them. “Have some CANDY!” he cried out, pressing past my side. Then a whispered, “Mama, can I have one…?” and my crisp, “Only one!” as he shot ahead of me down the hall.

My friend put my pot on the counter and showed me to some bowls. We were lucky that night. There were bowls. And spoons. We would come to learn that bowls, spoons, cups, — and food — were all commodities here, and in short supply. The things one would assume are available in a shelter weren’t always there. Resources for those in need are scarce. When it comes to taking care of the most vulnerable among us, it is often left to kind hearts to provide. The kitchen had no stove top, but one corner cabinet was packed with pasta, rice and dry beans that could not be cooked. The hungriest with food they could eat. Those with the least offered the least of all. It is a world upside down.

That night, we were bowl rich, so I took the lid from the pot and reached for the ladle. In the room adjoining the kitchen, the floor along the walls was lined with blankets, bins, backpacks and sleeping bags. Those who had already checked in, and those with day services, already had their sleeping areas made up along the floor. A man in a wheelchair, a new face, raced up to me. His smile was wide and open, framed by his white beard. His eyes glittered joyfully under the bill of his cap. “Hi!” he cried out, “What can I do to help?!” His friendliness and openness immediately reached me. What could he do, low down in his chair, the pot so high on the counter top? It was the church’s biggest pot. The rim of it reached up even higher, even further out of his reach. Later, he would help me, though. As he was helping me now. His welcoming face and kind way made a place for me in his place. His openness led me forward, making me ready to serve. Later, he would insist on washing the pot for me and carrying to my car. With that same joyful enthusiasm, he would race through the cold with the pot on his lap and thank me so much for the meal. He would rave about the dumplings. He would become my friend.

While I dished up dinner, my son twinkled like Christmas as he raced around the room. Everyone got candy. Everyone was reached by his joy. He turned the solemn space into a holiday with the joy of his giving. Like a wave, the room rippled with smiles, with laughter, as he gave. The people were delighted with his presence. Out of my sight in the growing crowd of people, I could pinpoint him by the spots of laughter that rose up around the room. His candy giving would become a feature of our visits to the shelter. His Candy Ministry. He would come to make a game of it, hiding candy in people’s backpacks, in their bedding, in their shoes. He threw handfuls into open doors, tinkling explosions of flavor and color. Through his loving joyfulness, and through my pots of rich, hearty food, we would develop many relationships. We would get to know people. We would learn.

We spent months of Wednesdays at Love Overwhelming. I brought pot after pot of delicious food. Friends were helping me cook on Wednesdays now as it was too much for me to do alone. I am no workhorse. The pain in my body stops me from doing all my heart and mind want to do. After a short time of chopping my hand can no longer grip firmly on the knife and I end up with cuts. Large pots of food are very difficult for me to stir. But the stories of the people I was meeting moved others to help. People gave money, time, groceries, and the pots of food kept coming.

My decades of cooking for my own hungry pleasures came to bear on this work. I made Lebanese food, Spanish food, food from Turkey and Poland. We had Indian cuisine, Moroccan delights, Greek casseroles and salads. I had been warned that people might not like all of these unusual flavors, but our friends at Love Overwhelming sprang to life when they saw us coming. They loved my food. It drew out stories from their own lives. One owned a greek restaurant. Another had been a baker. The flavorful food, full of meat and vegetables, gave them something to look forward to. It became a reason to be excited. “We wish you could come everyday!” they told me. So did I. But I could barely do this one meal a week, even with all of the help. So, we all looked forward to Wednesdays when we would come together, again, over another flavorful pot of food.

Some did look into my pot and balk. Green. “I don’t like vegetables,” they told me. I would fill a spoon, lift it, and say, “Close your eyes. Don’t look at it. Just take one bite. You can spit it out if you don’t like it.” I don’t remember anyone ever spitting. Instead, people’s tastes began to change. Fresh vegetables covered with delicious spices are hard to resist. Before long, I stopped hearing, “I don’t like vegetables” and everyone just looked forward to our next healthful meal.

Only there was still the candy. Which is not so healthful. And, really, I didn’t think much about it. My son loved giving it. People loved his games. He made people happy and candy is tasty. But the more I came, the more I talked to people. The more I got to know these people, the more I realized just how sick many of them were.

There was, and still is, a lot of misunderstanding about who it actually was staying in that shelter. Those who fought to close it tended to charaterize my friends as lazy drug addicts who needed to pull it together and get a job. In truth, many of those in the shelter already had income. They were disabled. They are the most fragile, most vulnerable in our community. I had learned that, even get a spot on the floor in Love Overwhelming, one had to go through an intake process that involved an assessment of vulnerability. Each individual had their fralities listed, and if it added up to enough, they were added to the list of those to whom the shelter was available. I thought of them as “owie points”. One had to have enough “owie points” to be assessed vulnerable enough to be admitted. The shelter had a maximum capacity of around sixty, but there are many many more people without homes than that in Cowlitz County. Only the most frail got a spot on the floor. And even of the most frail, only sixty could get inside each night. The rest had to make it out in the cold.

Then the shelter closed. One sickening Wednesday night in February, we brought the last pot of food we would serve at Love Overwhelming. Some people cried out, “Erika’s Last Supper!” but I promised them it would not be. We would bring food every Wednesday. We would eat outside.

We did. We met in the rain, under tents provided by C-HOPE, and held our bowls as we stood. Others in the community joined us to help serve our friends. Each week, as my friends showed up, I embraced each with such gratitude. My heart broke to know they were scattered, no dry place to rest, not even a hard floor under a roof. I felt such relief as I saw familiar faces coming to share a meal. For each one who did not come, I worried.

At the same time the shelter closed, the group who had been serving a Saturday meal in the County Administration courtyard suddenly stopped. I couldn’t bear the thought of another blow to our friends. Quickly, we came together with other caring people in our community, and began to provide a Saturday potluck. With more help in the kitchen, we made our Wednesday pot a little larger. Leftovers were saved for Saturday and others brought food to add to the meal. Now, we were serving our friends twice a week. We had two opportunities to provide them with a nutritious, delicious meal.

Now, out in the cold, the fragile became even more so. They shared with me what they were going through. Congestive heart failure, epilespy, kidney disease, diabetes. My friends didn’t need candy. They didn’t need kool-aid. My friends needed solid nutrition to help survive out in the streets. One friend told me his blood sugar was over 350. He showed me his feet. What had I been doing, bringing this man candy? If we really wanted to care for our friends we had to change. It was time for change.

A few months later, Reverend Vonda would bless us with an indoor space where we could share our meals. Along with the new space, the knowledge of our friends’ delicate health growing, the idea of Radical Love began to emerge. What began as a pot of flavorful food with enough meat in it had become something more. An awareness of the compromised health of many of our guests led us to do away with candy and sweet drinks. Eventually, it led us to do away with all sugar, sweets, junk food, white rice, pasta and white flour. More and more people were hearing about this ministry and supporting us. If we were going to invest their dollars in food, we would invest it in the kind of food that would help to lift our friends’ health. Sweets are available in abundance from food banks and other sources. There is a long tradition of giving day old bread, cakes, muffins, cookies, and pastries to the poor. Our friends didn’t need to receive any more of that from us. What they needed was real, solid nutrition. We now had two opportunities each week to give them just that.

What began as a pot of something delicious with enough meat in each bite has become something more. Radical Love has a trifold mission. We provide nutrient dense, healthful, meals twice a week. We help our friends learn to love nutritious food by making it available and delicious. And, by feeding our friends well, we ask a question: Who are these people who deserve this better food?

I will tell you who they are. They are mothers. They are fathers. They are sisters and brothers and cousins and aunts. They are bakers, mechanics, nurses, and chefs. They are disabled, they are vulnerable, they are forgotten. They are mischaraterized, mislabled and misunderstood. They are thrown away. They are slandered. They are blamed. They are ghosts. They move amongst us invisible and unseen, except when they are pointed to with fingers of shame and blame. And they need us. They need us to see them. They need us to put our arms around them. They need us to bring them into community and give them a chance to live amongst us, again.

These people are us. They are ours. We are one world, one community, one human family. We belong to one another. We are responsible for one another. And each and every one of us deserves to eat and to live with dignity, health and respect. This is Radical Love. And we are just beginning.

Psalm 86: 1-7, Translated and adapted by Nan C. Merrill in Psalm for Praying

Give ear to my cry, Eternal Word,
and answer me,
for I am in need of You.
Awaken new life in me, as I yearn
to do your will;
dispel the ignorance of my ways,
as I put my trust in You,
You are the Beloved; be gracious to me,
Heart of my heart,
for with You would I walk all day.
My soul uplifted, as I abandon
myself into your hands.
For You are kind and forgiving,
abounding in steadfast love to all
who call upon You,
Give ear to my prayer, Compassionate One;
listen to my heartfelt pleas.
In the time of trouble, I dare to
call upon You
for You hear the cry of those
in need.</e

Radical Love, The Evolution Part I

2 Corinthians 9:10-11 10 Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.

One cold night, last November, my son and I drove through the dark to the Queersgiving potluck. I am nervous on the road so seldom go out after dark, but it was a party. I wanted to support the event and my son, Mr. Social, was ready for fun. I avoided the main roads, and therefore most of the traffic, heading toward main street. It was almost six o’clock, so I knew it would be empty of both people and traffic. The road in front of me shone warm with the yellow white glow of the Christmas lights in the trees. The chill in the air lent itself to the spirit of the holidays, decorations sparkling in the darkened store windows. We were going to a party. I coaxed myself in the direction of cheer.

The street was silent. The stores were all closed. Few cars passed me and no shoppers walked the tree-lined walks. Then, I saw something out of place. In the shadow of a doorway something moved. A person. A layer of my party spirit fell away. A few more store fronts down, two more bundled shapes moved in the shadows. Peppered along this street were people, huddled in doorways, fighting a losing battle against the cold. It was near freezing. Dark. I was on my way to a party. Block after block, I saw the bundled bodies of people who were not going to be eating Thanksgiving dinner that night. My already reluctant cheerfulness fell away in hunks as I saw one person after another pressed into the cold stone of the darkened shops.

Near our destination, I saw a few more people. One man was in a wheelchair. My cheerfulness gone, I burst into tears. There would be no Queersgiving holiday spirit for me. Every speck of my awareness was pulled into the black hole of homelessness, the shadowed and unseen place where people live out of sight of those who have reason to celebrate. My scattered being, tittering fragments cast about by anxiety, were savagely drawn down into one, dark, heavy fist of grief.

Inside, the room was full of joyful voices. The buffet table was covered from end to end with a kaleidoscope of colored dishes full of food made for friends. In my mind, I scooped from dish after dish, filing plates for the people outside. The event’s coordinator, Megan, was personing an information table. On the table were hats and scarves she had knitted for our homeless neighbors. I pulled her aside.

“There are some people right around the corner, homeless people,” my eyes were brimming with tears. “Towards the end of the dinner, would it be ok to fix some plates to take around the corner?” Of course, Megan said yes. I found a place to sit down and tried to join the party. Instead, I grabbed everyone who passed near me and told them, through my tears, that there were people around the corner who were hungry and cold. I recruited a few helpers to carry plates and then counted the minutes until it was time to help myself to the leftovers.

As the party goers nibbled their desserts, I packed the plates. We made five. I put as much meat on each one as I could, picking desperately at the turkey carcass on the buffet. Meat is not something one often gets when homeless, especially not delicious roasted turkey. I selected the richest, most delicious foods still available, then headed for the door. Rolls and cupcakes teetered atop the mounded plates, my helpers struggling to hold all the food in place. My son hurried ahead with napkins and plastic wear, anxious to minister to new friends.

Around the corner, our extended gifts were met with gratitude and surprise. A nervous shuffle of cups and plates and soon each person in the alcove had a meal. I needed to get my child out of the cold. We needed to go back to the party. But standing there on the sidewalk, it felt unfinished. I wasn’t ready to walk away. The man in the wheelchair was gushing, thanking us again and again for the food. His energy grew in me like a crackling flame and I felt my body moving towards him.

In a moment, my arms were around him. I bent in the cold, drawing him into me as much as I could as he sat in his chair. His arms flew out and pressed into me powerfully. “OH!! OH!!!” he cried out, “THANK you! THANK you!! OH!!”

Suddenly, there was no cold. There were no plates. There was only the man in my arms, and me in his. There was no party. No street. Only his arms and his voice as he relished this human contact, something more rare and precious to him even than the turkey I had so carefully harvested. We held each other there, new residents of our private island, insulated against cold, against invisibility, against indifference. Walls around us trembled and fell as a citizenship in a new community was born. Finally, he held me at arms length and looked at me deeply. “Thank you…”, he said, again. My whole evening came to rest in his eyes. In those moments, I had attended my Thanksgiving party.

The following week, temperatures took a dive. The thermometer was expected to hit low 20s at night. The man in the wheelchair was burned into my mind. Talk of the shelter closing was heavy. I couldn’t stop crying. Tearful conversations were the only kind I had as I told person after person what had happened Queersgiving night. “What can we do?” I asked each one. “How can we help?” But the problem of homelessness is a complicated, many tendrilled creature for which there are no easy solutions. No one had answers. I continued to cry.

Then came the weather report. The first official night near twenty would be on Tuesday. Darkness descended as Tuesday approached. I felt insane with anxiety and sadness. I was desperate to do something. I had put aside a little money for Christmas foods for our home. I asked my son what we really needed for special food for Christmas. Would it be ok to just eat what we always did, and spend this money on a pot of chili? My son, passionate activist and minister to so many, my angel on earth, leapt up, “YES!” Still crying, I headed for the door.

Tuesday night, we hit the streets. A pot of chili, complete with cheese and sour cream to top it, sourdough bread, gingersnaps and fifty pairs of hand warmers donated by friends were in the trunk. My friend, Leslie, came along to be my eyes and emotional support. I drove slowly up and down streets while she looked for shapes in doorways. When we found someone we would leap out, prepare a meal, and hand off the steaming container to our new friend. My son, bursting with ardent love, flew ahead with napkins and cookies. The energy in us rose with each stop as we felt the Spirit lead us on.

As soon as we hit main street, I saw my friend in the chair. I parked and sprung from the car. “It’s YOU!” he cried out, “YOU! You are an angel! Ever since I met you last week I have been filled with the love of God. Filled with the Holy Spirit!” I threw my arms around him and held on. It was like finding an old friend. We laughed and hugged out in the painfully crisp night. Quickly, I gave him two pairs of hand warmers. Quickly, I served up two heaping cups of chili, topping it with cheese and sour cream. My new friend’s head lolled with pleasure as he took in the smell. It was still very hot, burning hot, and he held it close against his chest. As I fed him out there in the dark, he fed me through his eyes. I knew I had done the right thing by going out that night. How, I wondered, would I manage to do it, again?

The night was a whirlwind. In short order, my ladle was clanking against the bottom of my pot. Every ladle full was a sacrament, every embrace a prayer. I had met so many people. My head swirled with names and faces as I turned the car towards home. There was one more spot we would check. A tucked away place against an empty building in my neighborhood often sheltered someone. We had just enough to serve one more, if someone was there.

I parked near the corner of the empty building. I asked my friend, Leslie, to check the spot for me while I waited with my son in the car. She was back in a moment with her report. “There is someone there, but they are completely covered up and not moving. I didn’t want to bother them.”

It didn’t feel right to me. There was food in the pot. Just enough. I would serve just one more meal. I pushed myself out into the bitter dark and prepared that one last portion. As I approached, I saw the shape. Deep in a sleeping bag on a pile of insulating trash an unmoving figure lay. I put the food and hand warmers on a nearby ledge and bent low. In a quiet voice I said, “I’ve brought you some food. It’s still warm. If you can hear me, you might want to eat it before it gets cold. There are some hand warmers, too…”

The figure shifted. I paused. As they moved, I realized their back was facing me. A corner of the sleeping bag lifted as the emerging head below turned.

His eyes met mine. My breath froze in my lungs when I saw him. His brilliant eyes shone in a face set like a jewel against the green of the sleeping bag resting in the trash. His face spread with a radiant smile. “Thank you,” he told me, and I was unable to move. My throat closed around tears as I stared. He was glowing. His radiance shone all around his placid face, a halo of peace and love. “Thank you…” he said again. The air around us was pulled into that spot. The world rested, just for a moment, in the sea of his eyes. His cheeks were peach, like a child, framed in the curly brown of his beard. I couldn’t look away. Tears broke the edges of my eyes, leaving cold streaks along the heat of my cheeks. “You’re welcome,” I said. “I love you…” I said; and I turned toward my car, toward my mission, as I carried with me the face of God.

Hands

Isaiah 41:13 For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.

Radical Love requires many hands. Our Wednesday meal has an oscillating crew of about 10 to 12 people. Between preparing the meal, delivering the meal, serving the meal and cleaning up after it takes a lot of help. This Wednesday, the crew was oscillating wildly. By early afternoon, seven of those who contribute regularly had cancelled.

Without help, there is no meal. I felt the bottom spiraling towards me. There is a constant building knot of panic that grows inside of me along with this ministry. It is an endless tug of war. Mine are only two of the many hands it takes to carry out this mission, the hands of love tightly gripping a rope while something in the darkness keeps a snarling grip on the other end. If the many hands let go, I can’t hold on. I can’t keep up with this ministry as it blasts forward, seemingly under it’s own power. This was a pot of chili delivered out of my trunk. Actually, as Mother Kathleen reminded me, it was a few plates of food from the Queersgiving potluck last November, delivered around the corner after I discovered a clutch of homeless people stiff with hunger and cold. It was never meant to be an inside, sit down dinner. It was never meant to be a Saturday potluck. This ministry has grown of its own accord. As each new hand touches it, a tendril sprouts from the stem. The life in it is all of these lives, brought together with a passion for those we serve. The blood that circulates through its heart is the blood of all of those who touch it. Without them, it has no life. Seven cancelled. Panic pressed down on me, the something in the darkness speaking. “Alright”, growled the hand on the other end of the rope, “You’ll stop right here.”

However, The Creator doesn’t work that way. Like new shoots pressing through warm soil, the kitchen filled with hands. Right on time, the sea of color spread across the kitchen island split in to morsels of love and life. Onions simmered. Voices mingled. Rainbows flowed from hands to bowls and burst up in the warmth of fragrance in the garden that we grew. My Loving God hummed a soft kitchen song as the divinely planned meal came together.

With more loving, last minute hands, the meal was delivered. Already, several of my friends were waiting outside. Eagerly, they came to me. One of my friends, John, stepped forward to help. “You’ve got MY hands!” he beamed. My heart pressed up and flowed over at his words. I laughed out loud and cried, “I know I do! John, it’s so wonderful to see you! Let me do this, first!” and I stopped in that moment and took one sideways step. I pressed my elbow through the crack in my curtain of panic and slipped into the arms of my friend.

Every time I give one of my friends a hug I remember that this may be the only hug they get until I see them again. Living outside is very lonely. One doesn’t just live in the physical outside. One lives outside of community, pushed to the edges of invisible, abandoned, rejected, mislabled and misunderstood. My friends often go without deep human contact or human touch for very long periods of time. When I put my arms around my friends I want to make up for that. I pressed my cheek against John’s chest and held on. His arms around me returned my embrace. I spread my fingers across his back and shoulders and pressed into him, willing the love I felt to flow, letting his spirit into me to feel our oneness in God. I stood, a trembling tender shoot wilted; the roots of my fingers drank and I was filled. We replenished each other, then turned to the work. Soon, a flow of hands went back and forth from the kitchen to the cars filled with food. A meal took shape in front of us, and I stopped in front of the pots to look.

I love looking at the food we make together. I love the smells that rise up from the pots. I built that first plate. Rice peppered with edamame, pinto beans, bell peppers and tomatoes steamed. Protein rich cheesy sausage and pasta sat beside it. A mountain of bright salad, topped with delicate purple sage flowers sat shining in the center, and bowl of Puerto Rican fish stew accompanied it, full of cabbage, carrots, kale, onions, green olives, raisins and a deep, rich smell of communal life. The cheesy sausage was a gift from Reverend Vonda, the salad was a gift from the Lower Columbia School Gardens, the sage flowers were cut by the children of CVG elementary, and the fish was caught by my friend’s mother, herself, in the ocean. And more. Tomatoes from Nat, stock from Alison and the financial contributions of many. All of it sat there together, singing out love and community into the light blue room. I looked up into the first pair of eyes and extended our gift.

“This is my friend, Daniel,” Christine told me. Christine had come to every meal since we moved into our indoor location. I put down my plate and walked around the counter, embracing Christine. To Daniel, I began to extend a hand; but, just as i lifted it, his arms began to rise. Christine said, “I told him about the kind lady who makes the amazing food and he wanted to come.” Daniel’s large eyes opened to me. I saw him deeply. He hadn’t just come for the food. She had told him about me. He was here for the love. I stepped into him and scooped him up. “Oh!” I said. “Yes! A hug! Let’s do that!” and I gathered my new friend into the circle of our welcome. He held on, a weary traveler, finally crossing the hem of the village, finally finding his way home. I stepped back a bit, took both of his hands and looked into his eyes. They were the light grey of rain clouds with the sun shining behind, rimmed with graceful dark lashes that curled out like a boy’s. They shone urgently, a flood of unspoken words pouring into me. His speech came slowly, labored and quiet, hard to understand, “It’s so good to be here.”

Quickly, the room filled with friends. Some faces familiar, some new, they settled with their plates and bowls at the table and talked over the meal. When it seemed most had arrived and been served, I came out from behind the counter and walked around. I felt like a maitre’d as I asked each one, “How is your food? How was your meal? Is there anything else you need?” My body ached. My mind was swimming. My heart was still pounding. But the rushing swirl that hurls this ministry forward, the powerful swell that lands again and again at my back, propelled me on. As I went from person to person, soul-lit eyes turned up. The beautiful centers of my garden of flowers shone their light upon me, and the spirit trembling in my aching body swelled. “It’s wonderful,” they told me, and the truth was in their sparkling eyes. One of my friends held his empty bowl in his rough hands, eyes fixed on the bottom. His face was lit and beaming, “There was everything in there,” he nearly whispered, “Everything…”

I made my way around to the other side of the table where my friend, Kathleen slumped, unblinking, in front of her plate. I had noticed her right away when I had come through the door. One of the first to come to our inside dinner, she was a familiar face. That first time, she bustled in joyfully, throwing her arms around me in a jolly burst of friendship. The next time I saw her, she was crumpled in a doorway, unrecognizable. I thought she was an old man, a stranger, until i approached her. As I called out, “Hello, friend!” she had raised her head and I saw her face. I gave her peanut butter sandwiches and tomatoes, that day, from the groceries I had in my car. It was late in the day and she hadn’t eaten. She trembled with hunger as she accepted my gift. The week before she had been too nervous to come into the building. I delivered her food to her in the parking lot where she sat curled low in the gravel, trying to disappear. This week, she wouldn’t meet my eyes. She rocked frantically at the table. I knew she didn’t want to be touched. I stopped a respectful distance from her and said her name, “Kathleen. Do you have everything you need? Do you need more?” She rocked faster, “….no.” I stood, bent, my face parallel to hers. Predators look with forward facing eyes. Showing only one eye is a universal language among biological beings. It means, “I am no threat.” I spoke quietly. “I know you probably don’t want a hug today,” she shook her head rapidly, “but I just want you to know that I love you. And I’m so glad, even though you don’t feel well, that you decided to come here.”

As I made my way around, I gave out the map. It has the places and times of the meals on one side and a description of the ministry on the other. Our focus on nutrient dense food high in protein and vegetables, and the absence of desserts and sugary items is described. I watched people’s faces as they read it. One by one, the eyes would lift, looking for mine as a smile grew across their faces. “I like this…” said one friend, “I really like this.”

My existence in this ministry is that constant tug of war. On one side, panicked anxiety and physical pain; on the other side, the mounting power of the Holy Spirit that rises up like flames from the communal table. I watched the satisfied faces of my guests, listened to their words. They delighted in the flavor, both of the food and of the company. They were moved by the taste and color and care. I listened to the happy chattering sound punctuated with words of pleasure and gratitude. My vision glittered. Through my panic and exhaustion came that rising power, the trembling of Spirit pushing past obstacles, tearing down walls and spilling light into every darkened corner. Electric, alive, every inch of my body was shouting as I drank in the scene in the room. The many hands who had carried us to this place were joined in shared prayer, and the circle opened wider as they reached out to join to our number even more. A woman, brand new to our meals, stood up commandingly, plate in hand, and marched off to the kitchen. Soon, the dishwasher was humming and plates were disappearing into the steam. I trembled in place, alive in my unique manifestation of deeply energized exhaustion, and felt the hands on the rope adding to my weakness their power. In our sanctuary, burned the power of the Holy Spirit. Viseral. Alive.

Carrying some empty pitchers, I headed for my car. The voices of anxiety and panic chattered at me, trying to drive the Spirit back. The doubt and fear and worry, the pain, the confusion of a million voices, all shouted at me at once. Anxiety shouts doom, even in the midst of joy, and it’s heavy footfall raced to push away any good feelings that had grown with this meal. My mind was at war, my muscles screaming, as I made my way down the walk.

Then, I saw Irene. She was one of the first friends I made back when Love Overwhelming still operated a shelter. She stood with my son, helping him get his quickly growing little boy arm out of the sleeve of a costume that no longer quite fit. She held firm to the sleeve as he tugged against it. I could feel, in my own body, the strength of his tugs. The pain in my arm and shoulder would have forced me to let go, but Irene held fast. Her gentle voice coaxed him like a loving auntie as he worked to get his arm free. I watched as her hands cared for my child in a way that I could not and the power of the Holy Spirit surged, again. The tormenting voices of my mind, for a second, were silenced. In the stillness, another voice whispered, “Sister.” I walked up to Irene and put my hand on her arm. She gave me her smile, and I relished it. For that moment, I rested in the bond of family as I poured out thanks from my nervous, grateful heart.

Later, I stood alone with Irene in the parking lot. We talked, sisters, sharing feelings about the meal. The salad, dressed brightly with purple sage flowers, played in the eye of our minds. Irene’s own bright eyes shimmered with tears. “People don’t understand what it means to us. The beautiful colors, all those flavors, it feeds you in a whole different way. It’s hard out here. We get tired. We get lonely. Smelling all of those wonderful spices and seeing the love and care that goes into this food doesn’t just fill our bellies. It feeds our souls.” We stood there together, in deeply energized exhaustion, and held one another close. I kissed her cheek, and pressed my cheek into hers, feeling deeply the warmth of her skin, breathing in the scent of her dark waves of hair. We stood there, each with feet rooted, arms wrapped around one another. We made room for stillness, even if just for a few moments. We pressed our hands deeply into one another, and made room for dreams, for miracles, for hope that might yet shine through.

The Wilderness

Psalm 78:19 They railed against God and said, “Can God set a table in the wilderness?”

Saturday was beautiful. After months of unending rain the sun was finally shining. I rushed to the church to heat up the leftovers of my Syrian stew and rice. Enchiladas would be waiting in the courtyard, and two pots of stew. I knew there would be sandwiches and fruit. Mother Kathleen was bringing hummus wraps. Alison had given me four boxes of granola bars and trail mix. I had four gallons of water (some flavored with mint and cucumber, some with strawberry or strawberry and mint) waiting for me in the fridge. Brittney dropped off string cheese and boiled eggs. Jerri had left me a bag of tuna fish sandwiches, and there were beautiful boiled eggs from Jackie’s own chickens. Since the close of the Love Overwhelming shelter we’d been serving around 25-30 most Saturdays. Our cup runneth over. There would be plenty for all, with leftovers besides. What would we do with all this food!

Rushed, panicked, late. I arrived to see my partners already set up, waiting for me. My vision was glimmering diamond shapes of sun and green under the dappled shade of the courtyard parking lot with color breaking through at intervals where the people stood. A lot of people. My mind couldn’t see the faces but I knew there were a lot of people.

I couldn’t organize my thoughts. What to grab. What did I bring. What goes where. I got out of the car and saw my first face. A dear friend, a kind man who is always ready to help. When he saw me, his face glimmered along with the shivering of the leaves, eyes lit in the warmth of friendship. I ran to him right away. I wrapped my arms around his long, lean middle and pressed my head into his chest. “I’m so glad to see you.” I let out my breath for the first time that day. Anchored. I knew where I was.

One worry was lifted. Now, I had a friend to help me get the heavy things to the table. As I moved into position another face came into view. Jynx. She is a dear friend who had wanted to get involved with this ministry but struggled with many limitations of health. I encouraged her to come. “It is about more than food,” I told her. “It is about relationships. Caring. Connecting. Building community. Come be with us. Come build community.” And there she was. Sitting on her walker chair while her mother, Joyce, dished up dazzlingly colorful little cups of fresh Asian salad. Click. Another connection. Another door in me fell open and I moved to my spot at the table.

I looked down at the food. I couldn’t really see it. My energy was so high that it made no sense to me. A field of color. I grabbed a plate but I didn’t know what to do. My new friend, Kayce, appeared at my side. I looked into her pots before I looked into her eyes. Beautiful beef stew. I disappeared into those two pots, portals into the comfort of the family kitchen. She had brought it here to this table and we were about to share it. I looked into her eyes. Another click, and with her help, we started filling plates.

There were so many people. I felt like I had to move so fast. Too fast. I wasn’t getting time with my friends. But there were so many people and everyone was so hungry. Plate the food. But look up. Slow down just enough to look up and look into people’s eyes. A long row of eyes.

Click. Or more like a rhythmic, ascending clatter. The sound a falling row of dominos as all the connections snapped into place. I knew many of the names that went with those eyes. Some were eyes the names for which I was still learning. Some eyes were completely new. I said the names I knew, greeted each one. For those I was learning, I asked again. A steady flow of faces, bright with golden sun was set in their colors like flowers against the shimmering green of the leaves. In each meeting of eyes the light grew brighter.

There were several friends right in a row whose name I had to ask again. Behind them was a man I didn’t know. Small, tanned dark brown, his eyes were bright and eager, reaching for me. He had heard me ask the names of those who went before him. He didn’t wait to be asked. “My name is Mike!” he volunteered with great enthusiasm. Another door fell open. Everything froze as I saw him. His hunger. Deep, beyond the belly. Down to the place that craves companionship. Community. Connection. I stopped. I held up the line. I walked around the table and opened my arms. “Mike. I’m so glad you are here. It is so good to meet you. Thank you for coming.”

He came into me willingly and I held him. I pressed him to my chest and closed my eyes. I threw open doors, multitudes, echoing flutters of the fluttering leaves, and let my love flow freely out. “It’s so good to meet you,” I told him again. I felt myself breathe. Over the shoulder of my new friend the golden green light of the parking lot was infused with this love. I breathed it in. More open doors.

A hand appeared at my side. My sweet friend, David, of C-HOPE placed a small white glass soap dish next to me on the table. “That guy over there wanted you to have this,” he gestured. “The guy in the blue cap.” I looked up. I knew that man. I knew him before we started serving these meals. I had spoken to him many times. He would never tell me his name. “I’m Tempest! I’m Illusion!” magical answers from a magical mind. Sometimes, when I saw him, he was energized and happy. Sometimes, energized and angry. Sometimes, too depressed to speak. Today, he was happy. And he had brought me a gift. My heart swelled to the point of nearly breaking as I looked at that gift, glowing soft white in the golden flutter. It was a treasure. A connection, a kindness from a relationship nurtured over time.

We were beginning to see the bottom of our pots but the line was still coming. This was no ordinary Saturday. It didn’t seem we would have enough. David would occasionally report his count. “That’s forty.”, “Forty-eight.”, “Fifty.” We were out of beef stew. Out of enchiladas. Out of Asian salad. Almost all of it was gone. I dished up the last plates of my rice and stew and fretted heavily. There wasn’t going to be enough.

At last, the last person came through our line. Three plates were left on the table. A few came back for seconds and those three plates were gone. Done. I looked around the dappled parking lot at the crowd as they sat eating and talking in the grass. Now I could finally take some time to sit down with my friends.

Across the lot, I saw a woman I had known for a long while but whose name I did not know. She was never calm enough to ask her name. She showed up screaming, booming from down the street, assaulting the air with her rage. As she stood in line for food, she raged. Even as she ate, she raged. Stiff legged, screaming and pointing, she would assail the atmosphere of any space she entered, inconsolable and unable to connect. That day, miraculously, she was calm. Peaceful. She looked contented and quite beautiful. I took advantage of this rare opportunity and approached her. “I’m so glad you’re here!” I put my arms around her. She hugged me back, deeply. “You know, Friend, I’ve never had a chance to ask you your name.” I felt worried as I said it. How rude. As long as I had known her I should have known her name. My offense might bring on rage. Instead, she responded with open pleasantness, “It’s Mary.” Mary. Somehow it came as a surprise. I thought her name would be something else. But it was Mary. Click.

“You do know about Wednesdays?” I asked her. I had been telling everyone about the Wednesday meal and pointing out the somewhat challenging-to-find location behind us. “No!” she responded. When I pointed to the church and explained our new Wednesday arrangement she seemed surprised. “What do you mean?” she said, wide eyed. “Inside?? How did you pull that off??”

I stood for a second in the miracle of this conversation, and looked into her eyes. Energy spun around me like a whirlwind, blowing upward and tickling the leaves. Around us in the courtyard parking lot the golden air quivered with electricity and light. The air crackled with the power of the Holy Spirit. My mouth opened and I heard myself say, “The Spirit! Don’t you feel it? It’s alive all around us!” I wrapped my arms around her, again. Sweet Mary. Still enough to embrace. A wild woman had stepped out of the jungle and come to this table set by God. “We all have a light,” I told her. “When we join them they shine even brighter. That’s how we do it, with the power of the Spirit.”

Just like we had come together, a table set by God in the wilderness, a table that transformed the emptiness of that parking lot into our palace in the kingdom, we hastily broke apart. Friends were left scattered on the grass, talking quietly. My heart pulled me to them. I didn’t want to leave them behind. Suddenly, my friend with the blue cap appeared. Tempest. Illusion. He said to me, with passionate surprise, “Do you know what a blue footed booby is?? It’s a BIRD! It’s not even a booby! Oh, sure, you hear that word booby and you get all excited, but don’t! It’s a BIRD!” he went on, his impromptu comedy bringing laughs from any who heard him. I laughed until my stomach hurt. My friend had given me another gift.

Back at St. Stephen’s, Shawn and I unloaded our pots. I felt like I was running, still rushing, pushed forward with the power of the day. We stopped for a minute and caught each other’s eyes. Click. I breathed again. We reached for one another and clasped hands. We sat down. In the kitchen of St. Stephen’s we shared our day, our ministry, and the deep love we feel for one another and for our homeless friends.

“There was one late comer,” she told me. “We had fifty-two, all together. That last man came up and all the food was gone. I felt so awful. We had nothing to give him. Joshua heard me tell him we were all out of food. He had gotten one of those last plates of seconds. He rushed back to where he had left it, a untouched plate, and gave it to the late man. So everyone was fed, right now to the last. Today, every time I thought we were out of something I would turn around and there would be another bag of fruit or another bag of sandwiches. It was like a miracle. It’s like Jesus was there.”

We both walked out of the church on fire with the Spirit. As we drove away from one another the power of our connection only grew. Fed at God’s table, our light grows. Our lights joined together shine even brighter. Each of us that day walked away with a brighter light. We go out into the world to shine it, a lamppost, a beacon, a sign. A light is growing in the wilderness. Come, grow it with us.

Radical Love

Hebrews 13:1-2 Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. 2 Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.

I am a greeter. I stand in the narthex and watch the street. Far down the block I see one of our parishioners. I burst into rain and call out, “Good morning, friend! Welcome!” It’s a radical greeting, but radical is my style.

On Wednesdays, I am also a greeter. Under a canopy in the parking lot of the county building, Juice and I wait with our friends. Often its raining. Sometimes chilly winds steal napkins from the table as we rush to weigh them down with oranges or a ladle. On my vision’s horizon I see someone moving towards us. As he gets closer I recognize his shape, his walk, the color of his hair. “Joshua!” I call out, “I’m so glad to see you!” Just like on Sunday morning, I step out of my shelter and into the rain. In a few steps, Joshua is in my arms.

My heart falls open; I feel his heart. Through the thick layers of damp cloth, through the smell of wood smoke, I hold him. Someone’s child. an infant, a boy, a man. God’s child; he becomes mine. A few months ago, this man was a stranger. Now, he is my friend. Our hearts beat against one another. I say, “I love you, Joshua,” because I do. I say it with my mouth, I say it with my arms, I say it when I pour from my ladle a rainbow of color into his bowl, living food made with love.

It started last December. The closing of the local homeless shelter, Love Overwhelming, was almost certain and the temperatures at night were beginning to fall below freezing. I couldn’t stop crying. After days of tears, Juice and I made a giant pot of chili and put it in the trunk of our car. We drove around town looking for misplaced people living out in the cold. Chili with sour cream and cheese, bread and gingernaps. A few friends gave me money to buy hand warmers. Juice burst from the car at each stop, “Let me give!” he would cry. Later, when we shared the stories from that night, some people got excited. They gave us money and said, “Do it, again.”

Soon, with the help of donations and willing hands in the kitchen, we were delivering weekly meals to Love Overwhelming. At first, I thought I would leave my pot and go. But the night manager warned I might not see my pot again, so I stayed to serve the food. It was then that I discovered this ministry reached beyond providing a hearty, healthy meal. It was about relationships. Community. Friendship.

Week after week, we returned. I took our new friends on a culinary world tour. Morocco, India, Turkey, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Spain. Bowls full of rich flavor and color were served with love. I began to know the people we were feeding. I heard their stories as I ladled out rainbows. Red, orange, yellow, green. “We love it when you come,” they told us, “Your food tastes like love.”

The last night the shelter was open we brought Syrian stew. “Erika’s last supper!” our friends all cried. I promised them it was not. We would just have to eat outside. The very next Wednesday, we were back. Along with friends from the community and with the help of C-HOPE, our Wednesday meals continued. We stand together each Wednesday in a palace of the Kingdom, a palace that breaks apart and comes together in bursts of hastily set up tables and tents. It rises up and falls away like the rhythm of the breath, the great lungs of Christ’s living family, breathing life into life.

Now, thanks to Pastor Vonda McFadden of the Kelso United Methodist Church, we are moving our ministry indoors. She has opened up the dining facilities of the Presbyterian Church on Academy Street to our Wednesday meals and is willing to work with others who want to provide food to expand this effort to four days a week. Wednesday, May 3, will be the first time I sit down with my friends at a table and eat off of an actual plate. Some of my friends haven’t had that experience in years.

On the way to Emmaus, two encountered Christ on the road. They didn’t recognize him then, but he was with them. Christ is also walking with us on this journey. He is our companion as we come together with those forgotten ones he is guiding us to love and care for. When I hold Joshua, Joshua holds me, and Christ wraps his arms around us both.