One day several decades ago, someone in our church had the idea that at Thanksgiving our building should be opened as a banquet hall for people who had no holiday meal; to provide a festive table for folks who had no family. That dream was insightful because Athens, Georgia, was and is a city ranked as one of the poorest for its size in the entire nation, and there was no provision for the poor to eat on this holiday. Soup kitchens and food banks were closed.
That’s how it had all started. For almost 30 years the Campus View family spent months planning and preparing—it filled our fall calendar and was a signature ministry. The community knew our church through this meal, the city paper praised it with glowing print and pictures, and the feast soon offered not only roasted turkey and homemade holiday pies, but a clothes closet, then hygiene kits, and then warm socks for the upcoming winter season. It was not too many years before others with hearts of compassion in the community joined us. We had to spread the operation into the kitchen of the Catholic Center next door. Our fellowship hall was full.
The Thanksgiving meal affirmed an identity in us and revealed a heart for the homeless and hungry among us. As September approached each year, the church busied like bees for this massive meal.
Last year it ended. The kitchen sat empty on November 27th. Leaders and organizers had grown tired. People questioned the actual need, since in recent years multiple churches and agencies had begun furnishing their own meals on Thanksgiving, and many of our guests were frequenting these meals, too. When something so closely tied to a church’s self image dies, it is painful. The very people who no longer wanted to participate demanded its continuation. But we finally let it go. We mourned it, and probably still are grieving it. It is not just the meal that drifted away; it is us. Who are we? And where do we go from here?
This summer we received an offer from a non-profit agency with which we partner to help serve lunches to hungry kids. We have habitually made lunches for the Smart Lunch/Smart Kid program, but this year a grant would pay for the lunches to be made by the city schools over the summer. So they did not need us to supply and assemble the lunches; instead they wanted us to serve them in the communities where the children lived. I looked over the list of communities that would be served and made some choices based on proximity to our building, the size of the community, and where our own members lived. But then the director of the program asked us to serve in a community that no one had chosen. It was not on my list either. He said, “We need you there, where nobody else chose to go.”
So each Thursday this summer we assembled a motley crew of retirees, teens, young families, and a few college students, met at our church to pray, and then caravanned over to the Athens Gardens Community. In the middle of the complex’s green space we set up some tents, tables, and chairs. We brought games, face-paints, worksheets, Frisbees, soccer balls, and some cold pops (the brilliant idea of a retired teacher) and waited in 90 degree heat for children to appear so we could play with them and eventually serve them lunch.
What happened? What was a small group of kids the first week turned into a mob by the last week. Kids who knew our names and hung on us as we tried to leave. Mothers who eyed us suspiciously at the beginning, who actually helped us set up our tents and chairs towards the end. Church members who had all kinds of misgivings and assumptions, who saw both joy and hunger close up and real. By the end of the summer we were having conversations with school administrators and parents about how to be better neighbors (and by the way, there are heroes and partners for the kingdom of God in every Title 1 school). We had opportunities to pray with people who needed jobs, who wanted to get back in school, who were facing serious health issues. A former school principal is now helping us understand our community in ways we have never understood it. And we’re imagining ways we can be a more constant and neighborly presence with and for the families of this community.
It is not a big thing, but we know and remember names and heartaches. I know some stories of people who live there. We have been able to spend leisurely time with each other. It is only a small beginning. But God seems to be opening doors and providing connections through which we can know others and ourselves in new ways. Kingdom doors. For right now, it is an adventure into who we are, and where we go.
Jerry serves with the Campus View Church in Athens, GA, and enjoys the rich diversity of his church family and the vibrancy of the University of Georgia community. He and his wife Linda treasure a marriage that has included raising four boys as well as sharing their lives and past homes with gracious church families in Memphis, TN; Conway, AR; Rocky Mount, NC; and Jackson, MS. Jerry has degrees from Harding University, Harding School of Theology, and ACU.