It was years ago. It could have been last week. We attended three days of workshops led by experts on poverty. Not academics or sociologists or even social workers. No, the invited experts were people who were living in poverty. A few hundred church members from across the country came to this National United Church conference at the University of Winnipeg. And there were maybe twenty invited guests experts - people who were recipients of United Church Mission efforts.
They were there because the United Church believed in a partnership model of doing poverty work. The Church hoped to empower these people to change their circumstances, change the system that had captured them, change the minds of those whose hands held the controls. We needed to listen to them tell us what needed to happen.
They poured out their guts to us in story after story of the indignities of being poor. They told us about what it’s like to be hungry after the welfare cheque runs out – no matter how hard they squeeze it. They told us about what it’s like to live in neighbourhoods where violence is an everyday event. Even if you do manage to hold your own family together – the families your children play with are torn apart by addictions, unemployment, prison. They told us about Social Services employees treating them like children. They told us about battling with Children’s Aid social workers – young staffers with no children themselves - but because they had a university degree - could tell them what they were doing wrong. They told us what it’s like to have your children taken away because you had failed to cope.
You’ve seen it all on television. But have you ever had to look into the eyes of someone telling you about the day their pride, their god-given dignity left the room?
They told us of heroic efforts to make a difference. Of countless volunteer hours poured into the little community churches where food and clothing and training are distributed. They told us about how the church workers burn out, get sick and discouraged, and leave. And so they train the next one. Help them put together the funding applications to keep the doors open. Help them put together creative programs that get funded for a year and then the plug gets pulled, and the staff leave, and they are left back at square one to begin again.
We were churchworkers, church bureaucrats, and church members. We listened politely, shook our heads, and said it was a shame. The stories were hard to hear and hard to face.
On Sunday morning everyone gathered in a lecture hall for worship. The table was set for communion. The liturgist led us through a song and a prayer and a preacher took us through scriptures from Isaiah and Matthew. The invitation was made to come to the table.
As we began to stir and stand to come forward, a voice broke out that put us back into our seats. “There is no bloody way I’m gonna break bread with you people. We’re not one. We’re not united – and I’m not gonna pretend we are. You people are gonna go back to your nice cozy homes and jobs and I’m going back to my hellhole of a neighbourhood and nothing’s gonna change.”
The liturgist at the front stood with mouth open – you could see the blood drain from her face. She had prayed about GOD’s anger but hadn’t expected to actually meet it this morning.
Then a white-haired pastor spoke out from near the back. “We have far to go. We are on a journey – and we must walk that road together.” His voice was calm and sure. It seemed to quiet the waters. It seemed that we could proceed.
But another raised voice stopped us in our tracks. “We poured out our guts to you. You nice polite church people patted us on the head and walked away. We put our pain in your hands and you just walked away. I felt like an animal in a zoo. An amusement for your weekend. Look, there’s even someone dressed up like a clown. Does he think this is all a joke – that this fun? How can I go to GOD’s table pretending that we are together?”
An awful, long, silence followed. The preacher and the liturgist were conferring at the front. No one moved a muscle.
Then, a former United Church Moderator rose. He had a reputation for stirring the pot with calls for justice. The media loved his angry rhetoric. We felt that surely he could lead us forward. “Our efforts are not good enough. Too much is wasted on church buildings and decorations and making ourselves comfortable. We must do more. We must free up more resources. We must work harder to raise our voices in protest. We must demand real change from our politicians.”
He had us church people. We gave him a round of applause. We could join in on that song. But it was no use. The invited guest had no idea who he was and they had heard it all before. At the mention of “politicians”, a third angry person jumped up and said so. “Broken promises, broken pledges - raise their hopes just to let them down again.” Isaiah and Amos and Ezekiel were in the room with us and GOD’s anger would not be stilled by holy words or promises or good intentions.
The worship leader came to the microphone and gave up. She said she didn’t know what to do. She said she felt she couldn’t go on. It was sad but that was how it was. She left the room. Others stood to follow, gathering their things, moving towards the door.
But the Spirit wasn’t finished with us. The clown stood up. His face paint was streaked with tears. His voice was shaking with emotion. “I left the church because it was like this – because people couldn’t get along – because they just fought and fought and fought about money and who wasn’t doing enough and it was just as bad as my own family so I left the church I grew up in. But then, after a long time, I found the United Church. I thought it was a church that wasn’t just talking - but was doing something. It was far from perfect but it was walking with Jesus and I thought that was something to celebrate – and I still do.
But the name of Jesus sparked yet another round of rage. “You people talk about Jesus – but it was good church people like you who watched while the Romans took him and crucified him.”
Tears were now streaming down half the faces gathered. People were leaving in droves. Shame rained down on us. Dark angry clouds had driven out any hope of a picnic happening. I was riveted to my chair. There was no way I was going anywhere. I was in the presence of GOD’s holy storm and lightning was about to strike I was sure. And so it did.
A woman walked quickly up to the communion table. She grabbed the loaf placed there and lifted it high like a flag. “This bread is all about brokenness.” She cried out. “It’s all about failure. It’s all about suffering. It’s all about being abandoned. It’s all about good intentions gone wrong.” And she slammed the loaf down onto the table like a judge with a gavel. All eyes were on her. The people filing down the stairs to leave stopped in their tracks. Tears stopped flowing. She held our very souls in her hands. And she tore them apart. She tore the loaf in two and declared now – not with anger but now with a powerful resolve “It’s not our success that unites us – but our failures. That’s what we share in common. Our hopes and efforts and families and communities crucified and nothing we do alone will stop it. That’s what this meal is about. That’s why I come to this table. That’s why you should come.”
She tore the bread into chunks and she poured the juice into cups and gave them to the people in the front row and told them to stand and offer it up. Her last act was to stick a finger in the collar of her sweater and tug at it and declare – like a streetfighter ready for a scrap “And I don’t think you need a collar to do this either.” And she was the first to receive the bread and the juice and went and sat down as we all rose and went forward to share as a bruised and broken bloodied body.
I’ve received communion so many times since then I couldn’t count. But I count that communion as my most powerfully anointed tasting of the passion that is Jesus Christ. I never want to experience such a thing again. It will feed me for the rest of my life.