A day like May 1st reminded me why I’m here. It had been a long weekend, with Regional Assembly on the other side of our state on Saturday and much travel, only to be put together Sunday for worship at the church. I thought I was now finally renewed after the prior night’s rest, but was told that morning I looked super tired. “After last weekend, with all that went on, why are you even here today?” On Mondays, my answer is the Dilworth Soup Kitchen. We started this ministry over eight years ago to assist people caught in the economic downturn our country experienced back then. Allen Saxe and I dreamed dreams and laughed together as we envisioned this soup kitchen, wild-eyed and enthusiastic, because of the outlandish generosity of God. Nowadays, I’m present to pray with everyone before we start serving the meal, and if someone asks for the pastor, I’m easily found. We have many volunteers and are grateful every time a new volunteer or group of volunteers arrive. I spend many a Monday marveling at what has happened here. The volunteers forge together like a family. The food is prepared with an artfulness and an attention to detail. The atmosphere is like a joyful dinner together with friends. No trays, no cafeteria-style lines, our guests sit at tables and are served on real plates with real silverware, like in a restaurant. I once heard a guest say to me that this wasn’t a soup kitchen to him. It was his own little bistro in Dilworth.
The Dilworth Soup Kitchen is much more than a place to eat, however. It is a place for connection, for a listening ear, for encouragement, for “you-can-do-it” and “I’m-so-proud-of-you,” as well as “I’m-so-grateful-to-see-you-again.” We serve over 100 people–sometimes 200 or more!–every Monday. And, from time to time, the people we serve, our guests, work their way into a pastor’s heart. Mandy (not her real name) is one of them. She has been out of work for 17 months. Lost her home. Lost her health insurance. Lost her phone. With each passing jobless month, she loses something else. The way things have been going for her, it’s just a matter of time before she loses the car. A health crisis caused her to put her job search on hold as she dealt with doctors and clinics. When I first met her, she walked in the main door of the soup kitchen, past the greeter who welcomed her and I called after her, “Are you okay?” She stopped and looked directly at me and said, “Oh! You actually want to know, don’t you? You actually mean for me to answer!” She had become used to empty greetings and questions no one intended for her to answer. On Monday, May 1st, she had been waiting for me because she wanted to tell me about how she had been blessed a few weeks back. She got a job. She had an experience with a stranger who helped her with some money that allowed her to start the job almost immediately. She’d had to get an ID badge that cost $10–money she didn’t have. Her words: “I’m not just poor, I’m po’!” The stranger had prayed for help discerning how she could be a blessing to someone. And there was Mandy, asking for assistance to begin that job. She’s now started her job, looking at ways she can be of benefit to her employer, anticipating that first paycheck in over a year. Her words: “It’s been so long since I’ve had a paycheck, I don’t know what one looks like!” Mandy sought me out on this day because she wanted me to hear her story. She wanted to celebrate with me what God has done.
In addition to Mandy, there was Al (name was changed here as well). We got into some discussion about his situation and he started talking about his artwork. And then I asked a little more, and I was treated to a mini art-show. His work is, in large part, pencil drawings. He draws on canvas, he draws on paper, he draws in a studio provided through Urban Ministry Center, he draws wherever he’s staying the night. He showed me one of his pieces that he worked on under the light of a street lamp. The paper he’s using must hold up to travel, even within a portfolio case, and his materials are basic–ballpoint pen, pencil and fixative, found or donated paper, a little bit of paint. Even so, his drawings reveal a wonderful (almost meticulous) aptitude for faces and likenesses. As he goes through his day, trying to figure out what clothes he can wear and how to stay clean while living on the streets, he is thinking about what he needs to do next to that picture of Jimi Hendrix or Bruce Lee or that anniversary portrait of that couple a friend of his has asked him to do. I think to myself, “What would happen for this guy if he had better quality paper, or materials that were more predictable than ballpoint pen? How would it be for him if he didn’t have to risk damaging his drawings every day as he traveled across town?” And I think about our congregation’s Future Story (presented a few weeks ago) with connections to visual artists expressed as a great hope for our future. Was it an accident that I spoke with this man on that day? Certainly not!
When people say they’re not sure they can handle how depressing a soup kitchen must be, I think, Just walk in my shoes on a Monday, and see how everything changes. The interruptions become the most important thing, because the interruptions are people God loves. I get the sense of God’s great hope in every person. And, in those moments, it seems to me, I was meant to be here. I was needed to hear of God’s blessing to Mandy and I was needed to affirm Al’s very difficult vocation. And, more than my presence here, the First Christian Church community and larger Dilworth community needed to be here to provide the space, the meal, and the welcome.
Some lives hang by a thread. It is a fact of life. And, miraculously, sometimes God’s love for people is expressed in ways that allow us to fortify that thread and reach out with a hand to support and maybe even act as a change agent in a key moment. Beyond that, there are times when those we seek to help turn out to be the people who have something profound and significant to give us as gifts are shared and insights given. In the end, it is all about mutual connections. For if the two people whose stories are shared here were blessed by our conversations, I was blessed all the more.
So I got to the end of Monday, May 1st, at the Dilworth Soup Kitchen, and I thought, “There’s nothing like being in the right place at the right time.”
–Jolin Wilks McElroy, Pastor of First Christian Church, Co-Founder of the Dilworth Soup Kitchen
Chatting with a guest many years ago at the Dilworth Soup Kitchen, housed at First Christian Church