CALLED TO CHAOS (Part I)
How do you describe heaven, much less heaven on earth? Blue skies, lowered voices, the scent of incense, and order, above all order—-right? Well, turn your vision upside down. Put the last first and let a child lead you. Now what would you expect?
It was a bitterly cold March day. I wanted to see Jesus and that is what a friend told me I would do if I went to Haywood Street Congregation for lunch and worship. She had invited me at lunch during Christmas, but it had taken a snowmelt and a newspaper article to finally move me to go downtown on that Wednesday at noon.
Brian Combs, the minister of the church, had given an interview to a local journalist several weeks before. Seeing the headline, Haywood Street Congregation, I recalled the conversation I had had during my Christmas lunch and so I was captured by the photo of a young bearded man in a T-shirt and jeans and his idea of mission. “We serve with,” he had said.
I had recently read a book, TOXIC CHARITY. It made me rethink giving to people, taking mission trips, serving in general. I wanted to know more about what “serving with” looked like. What exactly did that mean?
Also, in that same article Brian said that at Haywood Street Congregation the Scripture from Matthew 25: 31-46 was taken literally. If you want to meet Jesus, then feed the hungry, offer the thirsty a drink, cloth the naked, heal the sick, welcome the stranger, and visit those who are in prison or who are ill. It was an aha! moment. My friend was likely referring to Brian as a Jesus look alike, but Brian was telling the world in no uncertain terms Jesus was not to be found only in him and it had nothing to do with the appearance of anyone or anything. I knew where the risen Lord was—He was among the least, the last, and the lost at Haywood Street.
So here I was at this very old church on a prime street corner in Asheville, North Carolina. I drove around the building. There was no place to park and I saw a business across the street and went inside and inquired about parking in one of their spare spaces. They were cordial and told me I could park on the right of their building but not the left. I did, crossed the busy Haywood Street, and headed toward the front doors of the church.
I was surprised when I discovered they were locked. It was clear that there were people at the church. They were spilling out of every door except those in the front. Along the sidewalk to the left of the church I could see groups sitting on the cobbled sidewalk and across the drive on the grass next to a chain link fence. I followed their lead and stumbled down the old brick walk toward what appeared to be another set of double doors in the back of the church.
Now I was taught from childhood not to give eye contact to strangers and these people were definitely strangers. Some had dogs with them, some on leashes, some not. They wore layers of clothes and large packs either next to them or on their backs. The fortunate ones had real backpacks. Those less lucky had made-do bedrolls with all manner of bags hanging from the edges. All looked tired and cold, very cold. I was shivering from both the wind blowing through my coat and from nervousness. No one paid any attention to me and for that I was grateful, but I wasn’t sure where to go. I finally asked and I was told to go through the double doors.
As I entered the back doors, I found myself in the middle of an exit. I was going upstream. People were meandering past me to the outside. Everyone was talking, laughing, and yelling to friends to hurry up. Dishes clattered somewhere to my right and the further I proceeded into the space the louder the noise grew.
I timidly walked into the big room, a fellowship hall. To my left was a fireplace with a real fire flaming and giving out warmth. I wanted to go warm my hands, but the hearth was filled with bodies toasting backsides. A young woman in a sweatshirt who had been standing by the door turned to me and asked if I would roll silverware into napkins. It seemed like a good idea to stay busy. I wouldn’t have to speak to anyone.
The eating utensils were deposited into a container where the forks were with forks and the knives with knives. As fast as I emptied the container freshly washed stainless was dropped in the proper place. White cloth napkins were stacked in front of the container. I found a rhythm and rolled as fast as my frozen hands would allow. My fingers thawed with the activity. I was not very adept at this wrapping and tucking, but my utensil packet held together long enough for one of the waiters to get them on the tables next to the plates. No one seemed concerned that I wasn’t doing it “right.” The servers, as they came to pick up more, simply thanked me. I was enjoying being useful. I felt apart of the hubbub. The noise had ceased to bother me as I realized it was noise with a purpose.
However, my being allowed to stand and serve was not to last. Before long, a large woman in a heavy jacket and a big man’s felt hat, much like the one my father had worn, took me by the arm and guided me to a table toward the center of the side aisle.
“It’s time for you to eat. Come sit with me.” With that I found myself seated next to “Mama” and her dog that sat at attention between our two chairs. Mama introduced me to everyone at the table and the eating and conversation commenced. Bowls of food were passed. We ate family style on china plates. I was spellbound by the caring exchanges I was hearing.
A mother with a new baby joined the table and we passed the baby from person to person so she could eat unhindered. The baby was clean and content. The mother not so much, but as soon as she was full of the delicious meal her demeanor relaxed and she laughed and talked with everyone else. I was pleased the baby was passed to me. He snuggled in his blanket and was so tiny. I found out later he was four months old and very small for his age, but his appetite had improved, Mama said, and he’d been growing.
I was included without question. I later thought about how alone I had been at other church dinners in other fellowship halls throughout my life. No one asked me where I was from nor did they seem to care why I was there. It was enough that I was there.
For more Faces & Stories from our Congregation, click here.