Yesterday, the church staff went across the street to Downtown Daily Bread and together spent two hours serving a meal. Each of us on the staff sees the clients of DDB every day as we arrive for work. Often we say ‘hello’ or ‘how’s it going’, and then we disappear into the church and think about other things. At our last staff retreat we decided it was time to get our hands dirty in this great mission project of our church, so we covenanted together to serve DDB several times each year as a staff … working side by side. I don’t need to tell any of you who have done this that it was a wonderful experience. It is so very easy for us to forget how much need there is in this world … in this city … ! We drive in for work or services and then leave into our respectable, quiet suburban neighborhoods and don’t much think of those who through no fault of their own are in a position of need for the basics of life. This little project, that was to be a temporary soup kitchen, continues to grow larger and larger with passing time. Yesterday we served 98 meals on the first day of the month. This is the day many of the clients receive government assistance checks … but with cutbacks in programs for the poor (we can’t seem to afford to have poor people in America any more), we see the beginning of the month look like the end of the month used to. And just a few weeks ago we served more than 200 meals in a single day. A new record.
On this side of South Street, we serve meals too … the Eucharist (or Communion) every Sunday morning, and on special days when we worship … the only exception being Good Friday when Christians do not celebrate the Lord’s Supper. As we are fed by the Bread of Heaven we, in turn, do our best to feed our brother in need. This is something we have heard from many quarters over the past 30-some years of DDB. Dick Adams used to say that it was “only as we feed our neighbors in need are we worthy to come to this table of the Lord.” And Pine Street does take that seriously. Our support of this ministry over the years has been generous and has deepened the worship life of this church.
Now it’s easy to pat one’s self on the back about being one of the few churches anywhere to have its own mission project right in our back yard. But in recent years (and this is my personal opinion) it has come to the point where we think throwing money and prayers at such a project is enough. It’s not.
Many years ago … more than I would like to admit … I worked in Abington, outside of Philadelphia. I worked in a good sized American Baptist congregation. It was led by a ‘wunderkind’ pastor. The gentleman had come from the coal fields of West Virginia to Eastern Baptist Seminary in Philadelphia after having graduated from a West Virginia college. He excelled in his seminary training, and straight out of seminary he landed the posh pastorate at the Lower Merion Baptist Church in Bryn Mawr! This was one fancy neighborhood. And he enjoyed being in that environment after the meager circumstances of his youth. After about 15 years there, he came to Abington … which wasn’t quite as posh, but still one of the most well-to-do communities in suburban Philadelphia. It was a beautiful church, on a hill overlooking Old York Road, the main drag through Abington. If I was ever short of change for lunch, I could go to him and ask for a loan for the day (ATMs didn’t exist then) and he’d pull out a wad of hundred dollar bills and have to search for a five … which was as much as I’d borrow from anyone. He never carried less than $500 in cash. He golfed at Manufacturers Golf Club with many of the elite of metropolitan Philadelphia. He was a conspicuous consumer in a lot of ways. But I held a deep respect for this man. Not because of what he had achieved … or for his much speaking in the pulpit (which at best was adequate). But the Abington Church had been formed when the old Tioga Church in North Philadelphia was bought by Temple University as the location of its new hospital facility. The decision was then made to join with the Jenkintown Church and form Abington … build a new building and move forward. Many new suburbanites came to the grand new building. But there were a goodly number of older members of the Tioga Church who still lived in apartments and houses in North Philadelphia … then about the worst part of the city. My pastor set aside two afternoons every week to go into that neighborhood and visit those older members. He risked being robbed, and having his Electra 225 scratched up or worse and visited all those members faithfully for the entire five years I worked with him. He got his hands dirty! He went where he was needed, and did so with a joyful heart and would always have a good story to tell the next morning about someone whose life he had touched … probably more than he could ever have imagined! I learned a great lesson from this. I don’t know that I always use that lesson wisely, but I know what I need to do … and what all of us need to do. Get our hands dirty!
Over the years we have learned that DDB is great success story … thanks to our wonderful director Elaine Strokoff. and the grace of God. Elaine has grown this ministry from a simple soup kitchen into a place where persons who are homeless can get mail, get a shower, find counseling and help in locating employment and accessing benefits. She is always looking for something new to enrich our ministry. In the mean time, many of us have forgotten to get our hands dirty. Me included. I realized this was the first time in eight years I’d stood there serving.
As we move forward with the ‘new mission initiative’, where we are trying to find yet another real need in Harrisburg, and help to fill it, I hope all of us will look at it as an opportunity to get our hands dirty again. To dig in and “DO” ministry rather than throwing our money at it! I know that this encounter with DDB has given me the will to go back again more often. I missed getting dirty in ministry and won’t let that happen again.
Our Lord asked, “Where were you when I was naked and hungry and in need?” And we all ask … Lord, when did we ever see you in that state? And He reminds us, “In that you have done it for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done it unto me.” I believe we have been faithful in many ways to ministry here. We’ve not been afraid to get our hands dirty … but we sometimes fall into a complacent mood where it’s easier to throw money at a problem than to actually work on it! I invite you to work with all of us as we look toward new mission … and I remind you not to forget DDB … it is one of the great blessings of this church. But it only blesses us when we get our hands dirty.