Wednesday night was church. As Sacred as any ceremony designed to feed the soul. As Holy as any ritual conducted to inspire followers along the way. As potent an experience of the Divine as what might be caught in stained glass sunlight playing on the rising smoke of temple incense.
On Wednesday night we fed the neighbourhood. A small team of churchworkers had been organizing for weeks. They put the word out that we wanted to do the impossible. A small, mostly elderly congregation, was going to feed 500 people.
Now a fall church dinner is no unusual thing. Church dinners are part of the Canadian cultural fabric. What was unusual about this dinner was that it wasn’t a fundraiser. Instead, George Street United had decided to give this dinner to the neighbourhood on an “offer what you can” basis.
It’s part of an experiment. We figured that this old church had existed solely on the offerings of people for over 175 years. Why change now? Why go into a survival mentality that has a smaller group of people working harder than ever to try to “raise” funds to keep the staff and building going?
Instead, we decided to trust in generosity. If we are generous. If we “offered” people a dinner, space in the church to use, and our help – would it stir up the generosity of our neighbours?
After all, the Sunday morning free will offering is a response to the generosity of God. Passing the plate is an act of trust. It’s ritual that invites people to respond from their hearts to the providence of their Maker. Now the Sunday morning ritual is no longer coming up with the $400/day it costs to run the building. So, why not pass the plate a little wider?
The Social Planning Council and Peterborough Poverty Reduction Network are our partners in this experiment. Their research has shown that there aren’t enough “Common” spaces available in the city. The city needs more affordable and accessible places for people to meet. Aside from the library, there are no community centres in Peterborough.
While lots of churches have gone into the space rental business, George Street is stepping back from this new strategy and sticking with its age old ways. This church has always offered its programs and classes to the public for free – inviting only offerings in return for what “God” has provided. Why change now? If this church is going to go out of business it’ll be because people’s hearts have changed and not because the church’s heart has changed. We believe in generosity. We trust in generosity.
“You can’t serve two masters.” says Jesus from the hillside to the throngs of unwashed, unchurched listeners. “Either you trust in money, or you trust in God’s generosity.” (my paraphrase of Matthew 6:24)
The Social Planning Council gave us $1,000 to cover the food. Our crack team of organizers quickly calculated that gave us approximately $2 per head. Grumbles from non-believers that “it couldn’t be done” only spurred on this team of “fools for Jesus” all the more. While exuding confidence in the face of such disbelief, they laughed to themselves about how crazy this attempt really was.
Matthew 6: 31 “What I'm trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God's giving.”
At first it was a trickle. The usual ten people signed up during the first coffee hour. Two turkeys and a ham were offered. It was clear that the George Street congregation wasn’t going to be able to pull this off themselves. Then the invitation went out to the neighbours. “Come for dinner and come help if you can”.
Calls started coming in. People living close by said they’d love to help out. St. James United said they’d cook us up four turkeys. Carol Winters, friend of Peterborough’s homeless, pulled together her team of seasoned workers. It started to look like it might just happen.
The good folk of George Street kept their offerings coming. Veterans of many church dinners who knew they could no longer “man the front lines” offered Apple Crumbles, cranberries, and ingredients.
The cooking started the day before the feast. With the first four turkeys in the over, a small but mighty crew got the veges prepped, the stuffing ready and the auditorium converted into a dining room with white table cloths and centerpieces. The veterans came and did their piece and went limping home with big smiles on their faces.
We sweated over the logistics. We worried about having too few, or too many volunteers. We worried about what we hadn’t thought of. We discovered we didn’t have enough silverware to feed a sitting of 176 (the number of chairs we owned).
And it happened. On a beautiful fall day people arrived through the sanctuary doors and made their way down to the dinner. Their smiles were met with ours. Jesus’ friends meeting Jesus’ followers. They brought with them a Spirit that was the gravy to the spirit we’d cooked up.
Sharing food is a Sacred thing. Whether it is done with a few folks catching a quick lunch together to talk about important heart matters. Or whether it is a full on feast. The Spirit shows up and opens up opportunities for heart to heart exchanges. The woman from Food not Bombs, our favourite local anarchists, stood shoulder to shoulder with us. Food was the common sacrament. Hunger is what unites us all - essential, universal, unavoidable and so – as Holy as any words on a page.
What really made the dinner into a party was the music. We had some canned music playing in the background. But then Matt and Matt showed up with their friend Matt. We’d offered them the church for rehearsal space, and in return for this generosity, they offered their music to the dinner.
Soon the dinner servers were moving their hips as their arms doled out the food. Strangers served beside people who’d been baptized in the place. Jim danced with young and old, coffee pot in one hand and a jug of water in the other. People from the homeless drop-in sat with folks from St. Andrews. If a lion and a lamb had showed and supped together I wouldn’t have been surprised.
For all our worrying, just the right number of people came. The extra food went out to the Mission and the lunch program at St. John’s. Some was saved for next Sunday’s dinner at St. Paul’s. Some went out to serve to the Poverty Reduction Network’s lunch meeting. And take out boxes went out to Carol’s housebound friends.
Matthew 6:34 "Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don't get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.
We ended up spending about $500 on food and received over $300 in cash offerings. Was our experiment a success? I dunno, you’d have to ask Jesus’ friends.