“For two and half hours we sat and ate with our neighbors. We talked and laughed…. No one tried to ‘save’ anyone. Iced tea and grilled meat became our sacraments.”
He said he would come, though I had my doubts. So, when I saw him on the street near the playground peering toward the picnic tables, I was hopeful. He looked apprehensive. It’s not always easy living near the church with the traffic we create in December.
He was dressed for a proper picnic. A straw hat sat atop his head, like what you would see on a fellow playing croquet on the green. He wore a neatly pressed short sleeve shirt and slacks. I walked to the edge of the property and put out my hand to welcome him.
Others would be arriving too, a thirty-something with dreadlocks, and a winning smile. There was the couple I had met shortly after I arrived in Thomasville. They were sitting on their porch one evening as I came out of the church after a meeting. I introduced myself and we struck up a conversation. She had hobbled over on a walker, recovering from recent back surgery. There was the young man who wore a hearing aid and was developmentally delayed. I talked to his mother a day earlier. She works evenings at a nearby restaurant and asked if it would be OK if he came on his own. There were others, a man in his mid fifties and his son-in-law, who both work with what is left of the furniture industry, in shipping and repair. All our guests live within a stone’s throw of the church property.
For years there had been conversations in the church about reaching out to the neighborhood, or so I gathered. I have been here four years and know little about previous attempts. There seemed to be some consternation over the issue; a big stone sanctuary with gorgeous stained-glass windows surrounded by small homes in a struggling neighborhood. Christian obligation provoked us, but we were at a loss. We felt like Lazarus and Dives: “between you and us a great chasm has been fixed.”
The idea for a neighborhood picnic came on the ride home from Atlanta, after visiting the Lupton Center. They are a faith-based agency dedicated to community development. Seven of us from the church attended in hopes of discovering a more effective way to help the poor than the transaction of I give, and you take. We all understood that Jesus had more in mind.
It would be safe to say that we left our three days of seminars and neighborhood tours inspired but tied up in knots. Poverty in America is a complex issue, and helping people out of dire circumstances equally difficult. So it is for many of the residents of our neighborhood.
When does our helping hurt, and when have we lacked generosity? At times we catch ourselves speaking in tones that sound like judgment, and at other times we are at a loss for an effective course of action. The Lupton Center would describe our neighborhood as under-resourced, and perhaps it describes us as well.
On our return home, someone in the church van spoke up and said, “How about a picnic?” No front-page initiatives—just sit down at the table to talk and eat together. This, after all, is what Jesus did and told us to do. Perhaps when he said, “love your neighbor,” he actually meant your neighborhood. Maybe Jesus intended friendship with the people who lived in the houses that surround our church.
For two and half hours we sat and ate with our neighbors. We talked and laughed, and told one another about ourselves, but no more than what was comfortable. We wore names tags, taking into account our forgetfulness and it made the conversation easier. No one tried to “save” anyone. Iced tea and grilled meat became our sacraments.
When the fellow with the straw hat was getting ready to leave, we shook hands. “I’m glad I made the decision to come,” he said.
“I am too,” I replied, “and we’ll do it again.”
“I would like that,” he said.
It had been a good evening in the neighborhood of Memorial United Methodist Church.