Waiting in line can be stressful. I re-learned that last week when I took the train to Philadelphia to visit several inner-city ministries. According to a July 2013 article in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the city’s poverty rate is the highest among the nation’s 10 largest cities, affecting 430,000 of the city’s 1.5 million-plus residents.
I began my day in Philly over breakfast with friends who live in the Kensington neighborhood, where crime, drug abuse, poor schools and inadequate housing are daily challenges. In another part of the city, I helped serve a warm lunch to more than 300 homeless men.
In the late afternoon, I made my way to the entrance of an old church building, now home to Broad Street Ministry (www.broadstreetministry.org).
The doors were wide open as a crowd gathered for dinner. I was led into the large sanctuary where all the pews had been removed to accommodate 30 round tables. The place hummed with activity. A maître d’ greeted the guests as they arrived off the street. Volunteer wait-ers carried platefuls of food to the seated guests. There were no lines.
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The dinner coordinator explained to me that great effort is taken to make guests feel as welcome and comfortable as possible. Those who have so little are too familiar with having to wait in line, be it for food, shelter, clothing, medical attention, whatever. ... Waiting in line is traumatic when it is a daily reminder of the scarcity of resources.
At Broad Street Ministry, there is a commitment to ensuring that there is always enough.
Instead of waiting in line, guests are offered a seat in a comfortable waiting area. When a table opens up, they are called by name and escorted to their place. For it to work, the guests had to be reassured again and again that the food wouldn’t run out. It took months to build that trust.
Contrary to our lighthearted jokes about waiting in line at the pearly gates, God doesn’t put us through that. We are called by name and offered a place at the table (Isaiah 43:1, Psalm 139, 1 Corinthians 10:16, Matthew 11:28, John 10:3; 14:3).
But the issue during Advent is not whether God prepares a place for us, but whether we’ve prepared a place for God. Any time we feed the hungry, care for the sick, visit those in prison, accompany the lonely, we are on the right track. “Whatsoever you do to the least of these, you do unto me” (Matthew 25:40).
We don’t have to go all the way to Philadelphia to see it happen. Our community’s congregations are again hosting Out of the Cold Centre County right here at home — a warm, safe overnight for the unsheltered, intended to make the winter months survivable. And on Christmas, the State College Presbyterian Church will host another community Christmas Day Dinner complete with a traditional fare of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, pies and live music for any who wish to share a meal, be warm, have a meal delivered or simply be with others celebrating the gift of Emmanuel, God with us.
And you’re invited. I can safely say you won’t have to stand in line.