Three or four times over the previous year, in addition to the traditional coffee hour, our church had invited anyone who was interested to gather after worship for lunch at one of our nearby D.C. restaurants.
But on that Sunday a few months ago, it suddenly hit me. However well-intended this new opportunity for fellowship was, we had excluded a group of people who did not have enough money to buy lunch -- or much else.
You’d think I would have realized that long before. After all, I’m the pastor, and our church, Mount Vernon Place United Methodist, has worked hard to build a diverse congregation that welcomes everyone, from young professionals to people who are homeless. Only a half-hour earlier, we had all gathered at another table, one that I had described as the only place in our city where all are fed and no one is turned away.
How quickly I’d forgotten. Like Paul on the street called Straight, however, my eyes were opened in an instant. I could see in new ways what it means to serve in an increasingly diverse context. The complete opposite of what we had embodied at the Lord’s Table, the scene at the restaurant reminded me that the work of building real community is a constant task. Apparently, as with so much of life, sometimes we have to learn the same things again and again.
Yes, I had blown it. But fortunately, even for a pastor, redemption is possible. If my shame was right there before me, so too were some of the most basic building blocks of community. I remembered that food matters at our church. So does hospitality. They were what had helped us build a diverse and growing congregation.
It had not always been that way. There was a time when our congregation was a homogenous, aging, middle-class congregation in rapid decline. But in 2005, as part of a major effort to redevelop our property, we were able to re-envision our building and our ministry.
We spent weeks and months dreaming about the needs of our church and the community. Knowing that youth groups from across the country visit our nation’s capital and need lodging, we included plans for showers so that we could host them.
But here, too, we didn’t see a need that was right before us. After the showers were installed, we realized that they could serve an even more urgent need, helping people who live on the church porticos and the city squares and parks literally right outside our building.
Creating a “shower ministry,” we opened the building three mornings a week for people who are homeless to come inside, clean up and have breakfast. Staffed by a team of dedicated church members, the program offers warm showers, hot coffee, eggs, pastries, underwear and toiletries to anyone who needs them.
After a few years, some of our guests began joining us for worship. In that time, our church went through great changes. We transitioned from a dress-and-suit-wearing congregation to a “come as you are” place, where jeans and shorts are not only welcome but encouraged. Our congregation’s average age decreased from the low 80s to the mid-30s.
Instead of worrying about being blessed, we got excited about being a blessing. We removed the metal gates that had been installed years earlier to prevent people from sleeping on the church porches and put up a sign with simple rules for those who want to sleep there.
We expanded our fellowship hour, providing a greater range of offerings, sometimes with a full meal, but more often with enough snacks -- and take-home trays and cups -- to remove hunger’s edge. One night a month, we began hosting a full dinner and movie, with local hotels often providing the food.
Fueled by hot showers, food and hospitality, our welcome deepened and was returned in kind. Today, our staff includes a former guest of the shower ministry, and about 5 to 10 percent of our worshippers are people who are homeless.
No wonder I was so embarrassed by the after-church meal at the restaurant. The presence of our “unhoused neighbors” had changed everything, from what we wear to the words we pray. And as I remembered during that meal, it had also pushed us to think more about food.
Here again, didn’t we already know that? Church people have always been passionate about food. It’s one of the central ways people experience God. It was an apple that caught Eve’s eye. God provided manna to the Israelites wandering in the desert. Jesus fed the multitude with five loaves and two fish. The disciples on the road to Emmaus recognized Jesus only after he broke bread.
Bread is essential -- not just to feed people but also to help them experience the presence of God. As a church located in the midst of pain and possibility, poverty and abundance, Mount Vernon Place UMC longs to do both, to help meet the physical and the spiritual needs of the complex and rapidly changing demographic around us.
According to MissionInsite, a data analysis firm that provides local churches with demographic information about their surrounding communities, half of the people living in the vicinity of our church are “younger, up-and-coming singles living big city lifestyles.” These singles, MissionInsite says, believe that “spiritual truth is buried beneath an avalanche of religious hypocrisy.”
Translation: it takes more than a prayer to get them inside. As church consultant Thomas Bandy has said, “The institutional church will have a very difficult time reaching them.”
Yet, as one who first came to Washington as a 21-year-old Capitol Hill staffer with big dreams, I know the church has a pivotal role to play. As we learned at Mount Vernon Place UMC, food can be a big part of that.
Food can help our church become a fuller expression of Christ’s body, where all are welcome and no one is turned away. At Mount Vernon Place, it helps us meet people where they are -- the people who sleep on our porch and those who live in new condos above the Burberry and Kate Spade stores two blocks away. Food is one way we can satisfy hungry stomachs and hungry hearts -- but our invitation to eat will no longer be to restaurants that are too expensive for all of our members.
For both young single professionals and those who live on the streets, coffee and eggs, a muffin and tea provide nourishment for the body. Shared with others, they also help us remember another body, one that was broken for us. They remind us of a Savior who longs to come into our lives, satisfying our deepest hungers and calling us to labor until all bodies are fed and housed.
Photo courtesy Bigstock. Commentary courtesy www.faithandleadership.com. The opinions are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the Florida Conference.