“If you go walking downtown,” my colleague told me, “just don’t take that street. It’s sketchy.”
“Yeah.” She nodded her head toward the church on the street whose bells punctuate our workday. “That church gives out food or something and it’s–you know, it gets sketchy through there after about ten in the morning.”
So, naturally, I walked down the street after ten at the first opportunity.
It was crowded. Men and woman thronged the sidewalks. Some left the church carrying white grocery bags of staples, and others held them as they stood in groups and talked. This was clearly a crowd of both the homeless and the poor: many had sleeping bags rolled up on garbage bags, smelled of sweat and alcohol, and others clearly hadn’t been able to care for themselves in a while.
Later, for a meeting, I walked down the street earlier than usual, and I noticed a park next to the church: small and lovely, surrounded by a little wrought-iron fence with no gate, and full of green bushes and flowers and benches. A statue of Mary and of Christ stood in the park. Next to it sat the church, and on the church door, a polite sign:
“Please do not block the exit if you would like to stand and linger or smoke. We request that you instead enjoy doing so in the garden next door.”
I marveled. You’re welcome to be here, just don’t block the exit, said the church, not don’t smoke or don’t loiter. Here’s a lovely well-tended park for you to enjoy, said the church, not don’t walk on the grass or don’t litter. And that church, daily, every day, feeds people who are hungry. Flimsy grocery bags with bread loaves and a small garden full of butterflies in the spring are the mandate of God carried out right down the street from where I work.
I go to a church where inside the lobby sits a coffee shop. Members use it, and visitors. But I can’t imagine what might happen if we threw up signs and flyers everywhere that said, Come in and get a free coffee!
Actually, I can. A lot of people would probably show up without having an interest in church or in Jesus at all. Some people would come in and, with a smug grin, take two cups of coffee because they’re grifters at heart and find it funny to rip off people who are generous. Some people would come and enjoy the coffee and never say thank you. Some people would come in for the coffee but with genuine questions about faith and God. Some would come on a lark. Some would come and complain about how the coffee tasted despite its being free. Some poor people would come. Some needy and desperate people would come. Some people who very well could afford coffee would come. Some scoffers would come. Some mockers would come.
And God loves them all, and wants them all to come to know Him.
When I was little, I thought a lot about how to evangelize people “properly.” I learned combos of Bible verses and techniques on how to subtly introduce God in conversations. I always felt that eventually I had to bring the conversation to the profound, deciding point, to create the confrontation: do you know who Jesus is? What do you believe in your heart about Him? Do you know where you’re going to go when you die?
A lot of people have used these methods to great success, and I don’t want to discourage anyone from evangelizing in the way they feel led by God. We are all different, with different methods, different context, and different audiences. But I do think it’s important to remember that the first step of love, of ministry, of reaching anyone anywhere, are the small and simple acts of nourishment, care, and regard. As James 2:16-17 points out:
If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
Research has shown in several cases that people who claim an aversion to Christians or Christianity nevertheless hold paradoxical views about believers they know, finding them to be more loving and generous than their impressions of the faith in general would otherwise allow. Once, in a forum on health care in developing countries, I read more than one comment by assertive atheists and skeptics acknowledging that, while they did not believe in Christianity and in fact loathed Christians, they marveled at the work done by Christian doctors and nurses to provide health care in areas where it might otherwise have been unavailable.
In all of these conversations, the sentiment is the same: I’m not big on Christianity/Christians, but… But. They treat those who are hurting. They feed those who are hungry. They go where no one else will go. They do it for little pay and little acknowledgement. They get by on next to nothing.
Sometimes, the meeting of fundamental needs is more of a ministry than we can imagine – not only to those for whom we provide care and sustenance, but for everyone else watching what we do and why we do it. The little church reminded me of that and was a loving conviction to me. I’m glad it is there – but surely not as glad as all of those who have come to it for bread and found themselves full.