The God who waits on us

This was the homily from this week’s worship service, delivered by Hugh Hollowell. The text was from Matthew 14:13-21.

If you grew up in church, you probably know this story really well. And honestly, that’s a problem.

Because with stories we know really well – like this one – we edit the stories in our head. We have heard them told so many times, and every time it is told, it comes with a preacher or a Sunday School teacher who tells you, “The important part is X”. So when we remember the story, we focus on X, and edit out the other parts.

Like in this story – we remember there wasn’t enough food. We remember that there was bread and fish. We remember that there was a miracle, and everyone was fed.

And because we remember the story that way, the next time we encounter there not being enough food, we think, “Oh, I know this story. What we need is a miracle!”

But that isn’t what the story says. It says that when the disciples told Jesus there were people who were hungry, Jesus said, “Give them something to eat.”

That was Jesus’ plan – share your food. If the people are hungry, feed them.

It was only when what the disciples had to offer wasn’t enough that a miracle was needed.

But that really isn’t where we are today. Today, we say to Jesus, “They are hungry.” And Jesus still tells us, “Give them something to eat.”

But now, instead of only having fish and bread, we live in a country where we throw away 40% of all our food. Where, on the remaining 60% of the food, more than one in three of us are obese. We live in a country where people are routinely dying of over-nutrition, while others starve.

The problem with serving a God who performs miracles is that we expect them, and we respond to the pain of the world by waiting on a miracle.

People are hungry, and Jesus tells us to feed them. And this time, we have the food – we just need to do the self-criticism and hard work necessary to do it.

God sees the pain of the world

just like we do.

God hears the prayers of the brokenhearted

and the cries of the oppressed.

God is paying attention

and God is faithful.

God has a plan.

God has a plan to solve hunger

to fill the bellies of dying children

to right the wrongs that have been perpetrated

to recognize those who have been neglected.

God has a plan. God’s plan is us.

See, it is not we who wait on God to act, but God who waits on us.

Community Means Eating Together

IMG_20160615_115301Three marks of authentic community are that you eat together, you celebrate together and you mourn together. One of the ways we do that here at Love Wins Ministries is our weekly community lunch.

Oh, it isn’t all that big of a deal, really. There will be about 50 of us on a busy day, and there will be fried chicken or lasagna or, once, there was barbecue. They still talk about the barbeque, actually. There is a side dish and bread and dessert. While we want it to be nourishing, we aren’t going for maximum nutrition – this is comfort food for weary people. There is always a pitcher of lemonade on the table, or sometimes tea, and always plenty of ice water.

Sometimes people bring us food, and sometimes we end up buying it ourselves, and sometimes it’s a mixture of the two. The barbeque was a gift from a political rally that apparently didn’t have the turnout they expected, and once the expected meal fell through, and we threw together spaghetti and meat sauce from a can in about 30 minutes notice.

The doors are supposed to open at 11:30, but, being us, we will probably start a few minutes late. Meanwhile, inside, VJ and Cassie are scurrying around inside, making sure everything is set up, and one of us is rushing around trying to remember where we hid the forks last week. Someone will inevitably ask me where something is, and I will have no idea.

By now, someone will be knocking on the door, reminding us they are out there, and I just burned my hand on a hot dish and – ok, open the doors!

Folks file in and line up to get food – it’s mostly self-serve, but we have people who will hand out particularly prized items, like fried chicken or cake, to make sure everyone gets some. It doesn’t take all that long to get through the line, and everyone sits at the round tables in the basement of the church building we share with Trinity UMC.

For the next 45 minutes or so, there is a lot of laughter, of smack talking, of joking and ribbing. Most of the people eating are folks who come to the Community Engagement Center, but some folks from Trinity come by, and some of our volunteers, so it’s a delightful, eclectic group. There is a piano against the wall, and inevitably someone will sit down and start playing it – Prince’s Purple Rain is a fan favorite – and over in the corner, one of our regulars who lives outside is regaling two elderly ladies from the neighborhood with tales of his exploits.

After 10 minutes or so, I will interrupt and welcome everyone. If we have a special group with us that day, I will introduce them, and if it’s someone’s birthday we will call them out. We invite folks to join us for worship upstairs after the meal if they choose, and ask for volunteers to help us clean up after. Then I sit down, and people begin to get seconds.

We try to get plenty of food, because we believe in abundance around here, but the food is all gone in 30 minutes or so. Even so, after it’s gone people are still sitting at tables, laughing and story-telling, their bellies full of comfort food and happy for the chance to be in a safe place where they can linger.

Some people start cleaning up tables, and some begin to drift upstairs for church. Others drift outside to smoke, and some slip away without saying goodbye, peopled out with all the stimulation. I am envious of that last group, but I can’t rest yet, because I have to run upstairs to preach at our little worship service – but I will tell you what that is like another time.

* * *

Every Wednesday at 11:30, we have a community lunch in the basement of the building we share with Trinity United Methodist Church, followed by a small worship service in the sanctuary upstairs.

If you would like to eat or worship with us, please come on by! If you want to help us by providing food, please email my coworker Laura and y’all can work out the details. If you want to make a donation to help us offset the cost of providing the meals, you can do that hereIMG_20160615_115301.


Wasting Time on Purpose


“Community, I am beginning to understand, is made through a skill I have never learned or valued: the ability to pass time with people you do not and will not know well, talking about nothing in particular, with no end in mind, just to build trust, just to be sure of each other, just to be neighborly. A community is not something that you have, like a camcorder or a breakfast nook. No, it is something you do. And you have to do it all the time.” – Wendell Berry

I have a good friend who had devoted his life to reconciliation between murder victims’ families and murderers. One day we were talking about the difficulties of explaining our work to other people, and he said, “Some people just have a hard time understanding that this work isn’t supposed to make sense.” We laughed, but I knew exactly what he meant.

When we say that something makes sense, we mean that it fits into categories we already have. When I tell people I run a ministry for people who are experiencing homelessness, they often reply with, “So, tell me about your shelter,” or “So you help people get jobs?”. Because the categories they have in their head around homelessness say that people experiencing homelessness need housing or they need jobs, and that to provide those things is what it means to work with this population.

So when I tell them that I do neither of those things, but instead I build community – they don’t really know what to do with that. It is often so hard to explain what it is I do, exactly. I mean, people understand the pastor thing, and that I preach once a week, and that we share food on the weekends. But honestly, that is like 20% of my time.

Most of my day consists of chatting with people, listening to stories, telling stories, asking if I can sit next to someone, laughing at bad jokes, telling worse jokes, eating donated fruit with Paul, hearing Dennis’ newest conspiracy theory, visiting Nancy in the hospital, or visiting Karen in jail.

In other words, most of it is wasting time.

And that is OK. Because that doesn’t interrupt my work.

It actually is my work.

Because my job is to build community, and while the marks of community are that we eat together, we celebrate together and we mourn together, community is built when we waste time together.

So that is what we do. We waste time chatting with and listening to people that we don’t know well, building trust, making time investments, being neighborly.

It is nothing, really.

But it is also everything.


Related Content: Friendship Doesn’t Have A Deadline

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What Duck Dynasty Has To Do With Homelessness

I have a confession: Until about 24 hours ago, I was blissfully ignorant of almost everything about the television show called Duck Dynasty.

That is a statement more about me than about the show – I am, according to the staff here at Love Wins, famously pop-culture ignorant.

A person from the show named Phil was interviewed by GQ magazine, and all hell broke loose.

In the interview, Phil said a lot of unfavorable things about gay people and about black people. And social media went crazy either defending him or criticizing him.

First: I think he has a right to believe those things, and he has a right to say those things. I also think he is simply wrong.

But many people are talking about that right now, and many of them far more qualified than I am, so we are not going to talk about that here today.

Instead, I have a favor to ask.

If you are going to disagree with Phil, can we please just engage his ideas?

I saw earlier today someone on Facebook call Phil a “bigoted redneck.”

It doesn’t really bother me much that they called him a bigot. Bigot is a term that has a specific definition, and if you disagree with Phil’s statement, you would probably think he fits the definition of a bigot. Although, I would have preferred they talk about his “bigoted ideas.”

Further, the term “bigot” is an engagement with the ideas or beliefs Phil has. And if you are vocal about your beliefs, you should expect other people to be equally vocal about their disagreement with your ideas.

But it really does bother me they called him a bigoted redneck. Can we please not continue to make statements that seek to “other” whole groups of people?

That the group of people is a group bound by class and not race or orientation does not make it okay to do. Please stop it.

And if you are not a product of the rural working poor, using the term “redneck” as one of the few means of claiming identity open to you, I would rather you not use it at all.

Because if you are not part of that group, the use of the word “redneck” only serves to other people – to separate them from you, to dehumanize them. Using terms like Bum or Wino to refer to people experiencing homelessness is no different than using the “N” word to refer to Barack Obama or using “redneck” to refer to Phil.

All of them are derogatory terms used to divide us. And if we are divided, we have no hope of getting to know each other. And until we get to know each other, until we have a relationship with each other, nothing changes.

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”


First, the good news.

On Tuesday of this week, the Raleigh City Council met, and they voted unanimously to approve the recommendations of the Food Distribution Alternatives Task Force.

In the short-term, the City will provide a building – across the street from the park we were distributing food illegally – for us to distribute food legally.  A building with a roof, bathrooms, hand-washing facilities, and tables and chairs.  A building where people can eat with dignity and laugh and feel human.

In the long term, the Task Force continues to provide long-term solutions to the city, with the goal being a one-stop solution.

This is, to say the least, amazing.

Three and a half months ago, the City was trying to arrest us for sharing food with people. Now they are providing a building not 200 feet from where they tried to arrest us and people like us. And now we no longer have to stand in the rain, no longer have to shiver in the wintertime, no longer have to worry if the police will try to stop us.

More importantly, the City has committed itself to the population of its citizens experiencing homelessness, and to that population remaining downtown. For once, the City of Raleigh is doing something regarding people without a home that does not resort to hobophobia or scare tactics.

In the almost seven years I have lived in Raleigh, I have never been more proud of my adopted city.

Cities all over the country are attempting to criminalize homelessness. Raleigh is one of the few victories for our side. Usually, those who are experiencing homelessness are the victims, getting pushed farther and farther into the margins.

It has been a wild ride, and the end result is that because of a long line of actions that started with a tweet and then a blog post, we helped change the world. Or, at least, our little corner of it. Because of the attention driven by social media and the thousands and thousands of emails, phone calls and letters all of you sent, the city had no choice but to work with us to develop a solution.

This is your victory, too.

The last 100 days or so have been both exhilarating and exhausting. The excitement of being interviewed by Fox News or NPR, the long, never ending meetings with politicians and City staff. The touching stories of others who have shared food and had their lives changed, and the frustration of being lied to.

It could be addicting, all the attention. After six and a half years of being in the background, grinding away, focusing on faithfulness and not success, to be validated in the national media is gratifying and attractive.  To receive emails from around the country, asking for our help in their own versions of Biscuitgate is an ego boost for sure, especially when your little ministry barely has a working vacuum.

And yet…

None of that is ours to do.

Because as gratifying as the attention is, and as happy as we are with the end result of making life suck a little less for our friends who live outside, and as grateful as we are for the friendships we have formed as a result of this campaign, we remember that it is all just a side effect of our work. It is not our work.

Our primary work is not changing the City, or policy, or the laws. Our work is to build a community of folks, some housed and some not, who are trying to learn how to love each other. Our work is to be with those who have no hope. Our work is to bear witness to the goodness of God in a world that has legitimate reasons to doubt that goodness.

That the world changes for the better is just a benefit.

So, there is no danger of me getting a media consultant, or of us developing a policy arm or me running for office (all of which have been seriously suggested by well-meaning folks). There is just the work, and us trying – and often failing – to be faithful to it.