Benjamin Pratt returns to the weekly pages of ReadTheSpirit magazine at the start of Lent 2016 with this column that explores a question millions of us are asking today: Why do we go to church? In fact, our Cover Story this week is about a Pew Research Center study exploring that question through 35,000 interviews with Americans. So, why do we gather together? One basic reason: We need to be fed. And while that is a spiritual metaphor for millions of us, Ben Pratt reminds us at the start of Lent that our quest for sustenance this year should move us to remember the countless families for whom that is a literal need.
Why do we gather?
More than two feet of snow blankets the area. Black ice streaks the slim pathway plowed through our church parking lot.
I shuffle cautiously toward the door to greet the 50 guests who have spent the night at the hypothermia shelter. I’m on duty to serve breakfast at 6 AM. It’s not an unpleasant job. I’m a necessary part of the team.
These encounters always confront my assumptions. Gathering with the guests, I become more aware of the thin line that divides those who arrive at our church as guests and those who arrive to serve them.
I have noticed many times that the guests guard their property with their lives—yet they freely help each other in unexpected ways. They quibble, jostle, cajole, comfort, assist and express gratitude.
If I blink at that thin dividing line, I wonder: These behaviors aren’t really that different than our own, are they?
And when it comes to eating? We all have our preferences, don’t we? When I began as a volunteer, I never imagined that persons living on the streets would have dietary restrictions. For some reason, I imagined they would eat whatever they were offered.
I would hold my serving spoon expectantly with a cheery: “May I serve you some delicious casserole made with eggs, mushrooms and sausage?”
More than once, I heard: “No thank you, sir, I’m vegetarian.”
Or: “Sir, no thank you if it’s pork sausage; I don’t eat pork”.
Of course, we had other options. They all were fed.
One of the big learnings for many of us who assist at the hypothermia shelter is the number of guests who have jobs! Many have a car and need to eat breakfast before driving to work. They live on the fine line of having work, purpose, dignity, gratitude and not enough money to have a residence.
How different are we? How thin is that line? And I wonder: How close to needing this shelter are others in our community? Have I even checked on … and my mind turns to this woman—or that man.
I served myself breakfast at the end of the shift and asked permission of four guests to sit with them. The two women told their stories about how life had led them to this place. One had lost her children. The other had taken leave from her work to care for her dying mother. Her funds dwindled and her job was not available by the time her mother died. Debt and her own poor health left her on the street. Yet, she expressed constant gratitude to the people who were assisting her.
Yes, mental health issues are obvious. Depression is palpable, but, I see that among so many people in my daily life. These people we so dismissively label “homeless” are not so different than … and my mind turns to this woman—or that man. Have I checked on them this winter?
“There but for the grace of God go I,” is attributed to the Rev. John Bradford, (1510-1555) as he watched prisoners go to the galley, a fate which became his own before he finally was burned at the stake. This proverb-like phrase is an expression of humility in which the speaker acknowledges factors beyond self, such as God’s grace, one’s upbringing or just good luck. I, too, acknowledge to myself that I might well have had the fate of these folks with whom I was sharing breakfast.
This time, sharing breakfast at the hypothermia center brought one vivid, poignant memory of another close friend—a man I’ve known since we were in seminary many years ago. Jimmy and I were among a large group of clergy who participated in a civil rights vigil in front of the White House in the early 1960s. Following the vigil, the clergy overcrowded St. John’s Episcopal Church, across Lafayette Park from the White House, for a prayer service.
Midway through the service, as we began to sing a hymn, a “street person” strode to the front of the sanctuary and repeatedly shouted, “I want to pray!” He was ignored as we clergy pulled hymnals closer to our faces and sang louder as we tried to drone out the intruder.
Suddenly, from the far side of the sanctuary came my friend Jimmy. He worked his way to the front and put his arm around the man appealing for prayer. They knelt before the altar and prayed.
Why do we gather together?
Somehow for all of our studying at seminary, Jimmy glimpsed this truth even before I did. Why do we gather?
All of us need to be fed.
FROM MATTHEW CHAPTER 15:
“I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.”
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Benjamin Pratt is the author of three books and has contributed to others. If you like his Lenten reflections, then consider ordering a copy of Short Stuff from a Tall Guy. That book includes some columns Ben wrote for this season in earlier years. Also consider: Ben is a sought-after speaker, teacher and retreat leader. Email us at [email protected] to inquire further.