It seems that something changed when we finally got our first good cold snap here in Danville. All of our own peculiar markers of the season changing have become unmistakable. As the temperatures dipped to frosty, even our last hanger-on (Bruce) began to admit that it might be too cold for a milkshake. Our weekly meals began to see more chili, cornbread, and hot, buttery potatoes. Grace and Main’s budget began to show a little more stress to accommodate the dozens of folks who had not yet found warm shelter. The hospitality rooms in our home finished filling up for those who would be taking shelter in our homes through the winter. Some of our faithful congregational partners began refilling our coffers with “Urban Survival Bags” for those for whom we cannot find sufficient shelter. Finally, I began to receive one of the seasonal questions I’ve come to expect: “So, any plans for Thanksgiving?”
It doesn’t seem like it should be that hard of a question to answer. After all, it’s an innocuous question at best; but it gives me pause and an opportunity to consider what we’re doing in Danville as our intentional, Christian community of hospitality, service, and discipleship struggles to live in the Kingdom of God and by the Sermon on the Mount. Usually, I give a short description of the big Thanksgiving meal that Grace and Main hosts every November and say that I’ll be having Thanksgiving with a hundred or so folks.
It’s one of the quiet traditions we have in our little community—having an outlandish meal as we near the anniversary of our start and as our budget grows thinner under the stress of need and cold weather. Since 2009, the plan has always started with the commitment that we’ll be having a big meal even though we’re not entirely sure how we’ll pull it off. Invariably, our congregational and organizational partners step forward and offer us space, food, and more. In 2011, we ate the meal in our home and didn’t have a turkey (or somebody who had experience cooking turkeys!) until the day before. That year, it was the biggest meal we’d ever hosted not in a park, but we were breaking that record every week only two months later. In 2012, we ate at God’s Storehouse (our lovely, local food pantry) and were overwhelmed by the number of partners who were eager to participate.
This year, we were hosted by our beloved partners at Ascension Lutheran Church, who have cooked a big meal for us every month for a while and stepped it up even further for Thanksgiving. I could spend many paragraphs just telling you how much of a blessing they have been to us this year and at this most recent meal, but there’s so much else to tell! Seven turkeys and twenty-five pies and cakes were just part of the feast we held with a mixture of folks from regional congregations, our neighborhoods, local recovery groups, and all of our many regulars with whom we have, and continue to develop, mutually beneficial relationships. There were a few faces missing from our meal this year—Miss Betty, Linda, Mr. Oliver—and they were recalled with fond thoughts and grateful hearts. There were many new faces at our meal this year, as well. It seems that God continues to call folks to join us in building new families in unfamiliar places—we’re thankful to have them. Members of one our partners, Clarksville Baptist in Clarksville, Virginia, even made the hour drive to eat with all of us—with a blessed youth bringing us bags of coats and blankets she had collected for cold folks in Danville. For these (both people and also coats and blankets) we give thanks, as well.
We start this big meal off like we start all of our meals: with the Body and Blood of Jesus. As we pass the loaf and the cup, we proclaim to the world and to ourselves that what binds us and connects us is so much bigger and more powerful than all those things that try to separate us. When we gather around all those tables, we’re one big family getting to know each other better.
When I answer the question of Thanksgiving by talking about this dinner that I’ve grown to love so dearly, usually folks will respond kindly and ask, “Yes, but will you be travelling home?”
Sometimes the answer is, “Yes, we’re going to be headed for a quick trip home.” Other times the answer is, “No, not this year. We’re not going to get a chance.” But the answer always ends with the truest words I can utter around such a question: “But we’re having at least one really big, really wonderful family meal this year. Do you want to come and meet all your brothers and sisters?”
Honestly, we weren’t prepared for that much bread. It had all started when he called me out of the blue and told me that he worked for a bread company and they wanted to know if we could use some of their “day olds” in our Roving Feasts around downtown and the Northside. Mike had heard one of us speak at his congregation’s Wednesday night service and had taken with him some of the written information about what we were up to. When Mike called me a few days later to ask if he could bring his truck by to donate some bread, I thought he meant maybe a dozen loaves in the back of his pickup truck.
So, when I showed up in the parking lot of a downtown church to receive his donation, I was surprised to see Mike leaning against a big box truck with a hydraulic lift on the back. When he rolled up the back of the truck, there were nearly 20 pallets full of loaves of bread that he wanted to donate. We live and serve among lots of hungry people for whom bread becomes something dear in the last week or so of each month. So, we thanked him for his generosity and began taking bread into some of our neighborhoods.
Mike started coming to our meals and worship services shortly after he started flooding our ministries and homes with bread. Since we already had a “Mike” who had been around from the beginning of Grace and Main, we jokingly started calling our new friend “Bread Mike.” The nickname stuck and Bread Mike did, too. Nowadays, you’ll see him just about anywhere Grace and Main gathers whether it’s in a home for worship and prayers or on a street corner for the “roving feast.” Bread Mike has become one of the pillars around which our Wednesday morning breakfast has grown and thrived, becoming not only its bread supplier but also one of its most loyal and dependable leaders.
Several months ago, Bread Mike opened his home to a young man who had been kicked out of his house and had nowhere to take shelter. Unable to watch the young man become homeless, Mike offered the extra bedroom in his home and insisted that the man stay with him. In doing so, Mike’s home became the seventh home connected with Grace and Main to begin offering a kind of radical hospitality. That young man is enrolled at the local community college now and is getting his feet underneath him again. If you asked Mike why, he’d tell you that he does it because Jesus would want him to do it and because he’s learning how to follow Jesus by uniting himself with a community of folks on a similar journey.
A couple of months ago, Mike was helping a couple move to their first secure shelter in quite a long time. He had loaded up his truck with their meager possessions and was eager to get them moved in to their new place. However, when they got there, there had been a change in the lease agreement and the couple could not move in. Once again facing homelessness, the couple didn’t know what to do. Mike barely even hesitated before offering the master bedroom in his own home to the couple “for as long as it takes you to get on your feet.” Shocked by his hospitality, the couple was hesitant at first to accept, but they eventually moved in and began to contribute to the house’s needs.
By the world’s standards, Mike doesn’t have much to offer. He can’t write big checks or move mountains with his influence and power. No senators, princes, or CEOs call him to ask for his input. He is, after all, just one man living on a meager salary in a depressed neighborhood and city. But, Mike isn’t content to let the world tell him how generous he can be—he has been called by our Lord Jesus to give of himself and to spread the fragrance of Christ about him wherever he goes. He’s not gaining the esteem of the world, but he is changing it—one person at a time.
Mike will try tell you that he’s learning how to follow Jesus by spending time with our little community, but the truth is: he’s as much a teacher as he is a student. It’s our privilege to live and serve alongside Mike and to be challenged by the way he lives to give more, sacrifice more, and live even more hospitably in a world that is being changed by love like his.