I’m used to churches serving people with food.
The church I grew up in held a dinner to mark every occasion. Any time anyone died, foil-wrapped casseroles and giant boxes of chicken started showing up en masse, enough to feed a family of five for weeks on end. Birth? Food. Illness? Food. Celebration? Food!
Somewhere along the way, I got used to it. The jokes about Baptists and big meals always gave me a chuckle. Serving food after a tragedy was just something Christians did. And although it’s always seemed like a nice tradition, I’ll admit that some part of me stopped viewing it as a ministry. I even wondered – somewhere around the 5,000th box of chicken – if maybe it was overkill. Because it was a typical response to tragedy in the world I lived in, I think I grew to take it for granted.
And then, this past weekend, I went to attend the funeral of my husband’s grandmother. She was a believer, and had attended the same church for fifty years – fifty years! Many members of her family drove and flew in from various states to attend her funeral high up in a family cemetery hidden in the mountains, and afterwards, her church opened its doors and served dinner to the family.
I am a believer, and have been for many years. I am, as I mentioned above, used to “the food thing” churches do. But it was strange to see it with new eyes – to be the stranger in need, one of the people served by a church that knew me not at all. To be welcomed warmly by kind older women who wore big smiles and kept refilling our glasses and clucking over our empty plates. To be offered no less than five different kinds of cake. To have a hot homemade meal after a long, cold day. All this unknown and unsought, given freely and cheerfully by a group of people I’ve never met before.
I felt at home, despite never having set foot in this church before and knowing I’ll probably never set foot in it again. Without knowing whether I was a fellow believer, they treated me – and the rest of the family, a mix of believers and non-believers – kindly and warmly without expecting a single thing in return. It was the very definition of Christlike service, and it hammered home to me the meaning of Christian hospitality, of what it looks like to be a warm, living little shelter in the world for those in need.
I had forgotten how profound the simple act of offering food could be. In our modern Christian culture where we’re always looking for new and inventive ways to serve and to reach people – at times even becoming slaves to popular trends in an effort to integrate our faith with modern mores – it’s important not to forget that some of the best acts of service we can offer are those we’ve always offered: lights on to welcome comers, food offered to fill hungry stomachs, and companionship for those tired and in need.