Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Breakfast Communion

It is quite simply the easiest ministry you will ever see: feed people. No more. No less. Just do it. It’s Matthew 25:35 in its purest form.

And, as usual, you should be careful what you pray for. Because any ministry begun with your whole heart and offered in Christ’s name will succeed beyond your wildest dreams.

There’s not much preparation. Get a sign that says “Free Breakfast Saturday - 8-10 a.m.”. Stick the sign in the church yard. Fasten your seatbelt because you will have the ride of your life.

I first heard about the idea of serving a free breakfast a couple of years ago. A few of us from my church were on a mission trip, riding down the dusty roads of Guatemala in a van full of people from about four other congregations. You get a lot of idle time on these trips because the roads in Guatemala are notorious for stupendous traffic jams. Central American Highway 9 is the main conduit between the banana fields and the shipping boats. And you never know when a truck will plow into the side of a mountain to stop itself because their brakes went out. I’ve learned the art of patience in these events and it’s a great time to get a conversation going.

So we started swapping our best ideas.

Bobby Connell from First Presbyterian in Whitesboro told us their church had started serving scrambled eggs, sausage, pancakes and all the trimmings every Saturday morning. They were drawing about 100 people a week and having a great time doing it. Their church is located in the old downtown area and they get mostly neighbors who love the chance to get together over a meal. “Did they get new members from this?” I asked. Bobby said that was never the goal of the breakfast. He told me I needed to talk to his son, Michael. His church got the idea from Michael’s church.

So I called Michael Connell and went to visit the Cathedral of Hope in downtown Dallas. That church began what they call BACH (Breakfast at Cathedral of Hope) specifically to benefit the homeless people in their neighborhood. I wrote a little bit about that visit in an earlier blog.

Then we sent out scouts to see how they did things at Bobby’s church in Whitesboro. The scouts came home and said it was not only easier than they ever dreamed; they ended up with a bonus no one was expecting. The congregation bonded with each other in ways they never expected.

The scouts told us we should try it. Sure enough, it wasn’t complicated: buy groceries, scramble eggs, flip pancakes, clean up. It’s not exactly rocket science. The next thing we knew, we had 100+ every week. And our members were hooked on the experience of working together in the kitchen.

Some of the members enjoyed visiting with the customers more than spending time in the kitchen. One of the crew says, “Listening is so important. I can’t tell you how many times someone has just thanked me for taking the time to listen…Their stories are long, sometimes rambling and erratic but they are all beautiful and unique children of God.”

The Garland church has a mixture of what the other two churches have—some of the people who come are neighbors and some are homeless. But we’ve uncovered another, much overlooked, clientele: the working poor. These are the folks who live so close to the edge financially that just that one free meal for their family makes the difference in whether or not they have enough money to pay the electric bill.  Even though, invariably, one of the women will come help do the dishes after she has eaten, it's probably the only time she gets to sit at a table and have someone wait on her..

That’s one thing we learned from BACH: every guest gets the royal treatment. In fact, they are probably served faster than any restaurant in town could do. They walk in and a church member immediately goes check to how many want the full breakfast and whether they want orange juice or milk. The food is usually ready and they’re served within a couple minutes of walking in the door.

We even provide entertainment. The Garland church has one homeless regular who will finish his meal then go over to the piano and spend a little time playing background music. He’s fairly talented and this is probably the only access he has to a piano.

The surprise to us has been how much benefit the church members receive. So many times we come to church, worship and go home. Working behind the scenes at breakfast gives us a golden chance to talk to each other in a relaxed, easy going way. It is bonding at its best.

It’s an inter-generational activity, too. Jimmie Schardein, who usually does the dishes, spends time standing next to one of our middle-schoolers while he fries sausage on the counter. If I were to guess, there’s probably at least 50 years difference in their ages. The youth misses talking to his grandmother and told Jimmie he enjoys their conversations on Saturday. While their hands are busy, their hearts are talking to each other.

As Sandy Kueser put it, “I started going to help other people but I am the one who is benefitting.”

Even Kat Hutchings, the church secretary, who spends a full day at the church every week-day, is drawn to return on her day off.  She says it’s the best thing our church has done in a long time and she ought to know. She’s worked at the church longer than most members have attended. She is better acquainted with the homeless and helpless of our community. She knows a lot of them by name and is glad to see them on Saturday.

One week they had a Girl Scout troop help with breakfast as part of earning a patch. The following week one of the girls came back on her own because she enjoyed it so much.

Linda, my mission mentor, who got me started going on mission trips to Guatemala, said it best: “It is…. a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven—a diverse group of people, some serving, some in need, all sharing and accepting each other. The chance to connect over a meal is almost a “communion.”

I encourage you to try something like this at your church.  Let me know if there's any way I can help you.

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