In July 2014, I and two sponsors took 15 youth to Atlanta to serve with an inner-city mission agency. We stayed in the gymnasium of Central Presbyterian Church which is in the South Downtown area of the city. Three additional churches from other areas of the U.S. had also arrived. We carried our stuff along the sidewalk behind the church, passed men and women who were preparing their cardboard and newspaper shelters for the night, which they did every evening. Our guide unlocked the church door and we went in to wait on the elevator. I watched a man not ten feet from me, but outside the glass door who worked to get his cardboard box arranged just right. Finally he stepped inside the box, then laid down and pulled the top flap closed. I was headed upstairs to a thin mattress on the floor, air conditioning, a bathroom, shower, water and food. The people on the sidewalk had none of that. We are all beloved children of God, yet we were separated by much more than a locked glass door.
After supper each day, after a full day of service work at various places around the city, we would go back out and sit with the folks on the sidewalk, taking them food and water, listening to their stories, some sang to us, and just spending time with them before they settled into their spaces for the night.
Special speakers would come to talk to us each evening. One evening the speaker was a young man who was volunteering in the city at a church that ran a shelter and soup kitchen. I wrote the following summary from his talk: “I can’t change anyone. It is enough that I daily engage in the system, the struggles, and the life-changing beauty of relating to all people, and acknowledging people’s existence. God is in the simple moments.”
That week included serving meals in soup kitchens (at one church Father Tom offered the meal blessing of The Lord’s Prayer, interspersed with loud admonitions to “Be Quiet!” and “No one eats until I finish this prayer!”), volunteering in a housing development for low income elderly persons, working on a community farm that a church started to help feed their neighbors, sorting donated books at Books for Africa, sorting donated tools at ToolBank USA, and then a massive cleaning of the church where we had stayed all week. It was a HOT week, a blessed week, a week that shook the youth to their core as they came face-to-face with the daily living reality of millions of people. We felt so inadequate.
The young man who spoke to our group read the following quote to us.“It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything. This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.” Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw
Today, may we plant and water seeds, provide yeast, lay foundations, do something and do it well, which the Holy Spirit will use for growth for the glory of God’s Kingdom.
I’m praying for you,