I was a transactional Lutheran. I attended church regularly. I volunteered for anything and everything. I believed that this was my duty as a Christian. I “did,” but I did not “see.” When our church was asked to operate the Cold Weather Emergency Shelter, I was president of the congregation and scared beyond words. I asked (no, more like, begged) how are we going to do this? Please help me to understand. Pastor Karen Perkins, Brad Perkins (the shelter manager) and the shelter staff showed me, in both word and deed, how to “do this.” And my life will never be the same.
On Monday, June 26, 70 people came through the line at the RLC Food Pantry, taking food to feed 205 — those in their households, their extended families, their neighbors. Nine of these people walking through the door had come in for the first time. When you have always had enough to eat it is impossible to understand how uncomfortable it feels to walk through the door and receive. It takes courage. Often those who come for the first time, and sometimes those who come more frequently, feel the need to explain why they need food at this time. Many will offer to help or volunteer, wanting to offer service in exchange. You may have heard yourself think, or even say, “I would rather die than accept free food.” The people in the food pantry line have probably thought it too. But the people with the fortitude to come Monday were, on average, responsible for almost three people. Perhaps my druthers would be less important if I were making that trip for two others.
Unfortunately, it is easy for many in my faith tradition to treat God’s grace with the same sense of transaction. God loves me freely and abundantly because that is God’s nature. I sure feel a lot better, though, if I am giving back something in exchange. I can worship. I can volunteer. I can give financially. I can explain to God why I need a little extra attention right now. I have always paid my way and expect I always will. I like that system because I understand it and can measure it. I know if I am being a good Lutheran. But that is not how God has treated me. God says we can’t pay our own way. It isn’t a trade. I absolutely must receive.
Recently, I started learning about blended service, where it isn’t clear who is serving whom. I realized that, in many ways, working at our food pantry, or sheltering people experiencing homelessness, is blended service. The people who come model the type of faith I thought I understood just fine. They do something I am not sure that I could. They come without paying. But they do share. They share their stories with me. They share their angers and frustrations and joys. They share their names and faces and truths. The people who are theoretically receiving have changed me. By letting me know them, they took their circumstances personally. Jesus teaches about this type of connection, but I didn’t understand how profoundly he meant it. Now, it is a privilege to serve rather than just a responsibility.
Before, the people that I encountered in the margins were invisible. I would hand out food or talk to them and never see them. I valued the “doing” above the “being.” I was sufficiently “productive.” That is how I did church, even though it wasn’t what was taught in decades of studies and sermons. I did my duty, served the people and checked it off my list. That is not the case now. I have been transformed. I see the people. And care about them. And once seen, they can’t be unseen. They matter. All have a face and a name AND they are children of God.