For several years now, I have attended a program at Central where, from November to March each year, hot meals are served to those who come. I walk around, feeling like a maître-d’, saying hello, getting to know the guests; feeling like I should have a violin, and be lighting elegant candles. At times, we talk about the weather, or sports. Two years ago, I came with a broken ankle. Guests still ask how it is doing. Other times, we talk about the birth of their grand children, the death of friends, pets, loved ones. We talk about visions some have. Of angels; of God meeting them. I hear favourite Bible verses quoted, and the latest books being read, commented on. If it is someone’s birthday, I will be told, and we will sing before grace.
And that is fine. We all go our separate ways.
Other times, though, there are cross overs. Like the wedding I have been asked to perform; or like the spouse, diagnosed with cancer, I was asked to visit over the months she was dying. And her funeral, hosted by the church. And like the three times individual guests came and spoke about these meals to the congregation.
I noticed something every year however. Every year around March, the final month, guests would start asking, “is this going to be over soon”, saying “we’re not going to see each other until next October”. One March, I batted around the idea of a summer reunion, small talk though, mumbling something about having to find volunteers, find time, budget etc. etc. Another March, I actually heard myself saying, “well, maybe next year”, hearing acutely how words can be so easy, and empty.
But this March something changed. One of the guests suggested a BBQ. And, I heard myself agreeing, joining in, yes, a community BBQ outside the front of the church. Yes. Perfect. Try it for a month, every Thursday in April. I said, let me talk to some people and get back to you, wondering if I would.
Yesterday, I attended the second community BBQ outside the front doors of our church. The team served 120 sausages, street vendor style, to 75 people. I noticed a few changes from the winter program. One the guests from the winter program actually had become one of servers. She had joined the church team. Coordinating the lines, handing out bottles of water. The coffee shop from across the street had joined in. They had provided two huge containers of hot drinks and coffee. People driving by the front of the church in their cars, slowed down, hanging their head out the window, and having a long look. As if they had never seen a BBQ outside the oak doors and tall steeple of a city church. I noticed how people spoke to each other more loosely, more relaxed, being outside, moving around, laughing, chatting. The atmosphere was almost fun. I noticed how easy it was to invite people. Three children played across the street with their Mom, and I yelled over, would you like a BBQ. Over they ran. We talked summer camps, gym space for after school basketball, and something about each of the kids. Shortly put, there were more connections with our neighbourhood in 30 minutes, then I might otherwise see in a month.
One interaction stayed with me the most.
Because the BBQ was outside, as the guests arrived, you could see them coming. One man, a regular during the winter, came by, limping. After he had his sausage, he explained to me how each step he took, hurt. His ankle, to his knees, up the leg, into his hip. (I asked him how far he had walked for the BBQ, and it was about 2.5 km, a mile and half). I said, “sir, that is no good, how can we help?”
He explained that he had gone to a pedorthist on James Street, was fitted for large orthotics and special shoes to balance out his gait, but not being able to pay for them, opted for the monthly payment plan, which after a month, he could not pay. So here he was, a large man, walking in pain at each step, with what he needed to walk prepared but on a shelf in a store on James Street. Nowhere near his feet. I suggested the church use its benevolent fund to pay off the shoes, and that he pick them up as soon as possible. His large eyebrows, unshaven, furrowed. His lips, still yellow from mustard, turned down. And he said to me, “can you do that?” I said, this church would be happy to do that. And so it is in the works. Set for next week. Next week, among other things, there will be a man, in our neighbourhood, walking without pain, because of a simple BBQ, the generosity of this congregation, and the grace of a God, who makes the sheer joy of opportunities like these, possible.