Sunday, March 01, 2009

Just Neighbors

The Messenger
Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
March 2009

Just Neighbors

Over the past few months many of us have become increasingly aware of the poverty that exists here in our communities. Those of us who receive the daily email updates from Kit Cone about the work of the Recycling Ministry learn about the often desperate straits of our neighbors living in places such as Morristown, Dover, and sometimes even in Madison. It is deeply touching and also very disturbing to read about people who are moved to tears by the gift of a simple kitchen table or a modest supermarket gift card.

Many of us were astonished when we learned that the Community Soup Kitchen in Morristown is now regularly hosting over 300 guests a day. That shocking statistic - plus the amazing incentive of a $1000 matching grant from an anonymous foundation - clearly inspired the Grace Church community on “Souper Bowl” Sunday to open up its wallets and checkbooks and donate nearly $3000 to the soup kitchen – money that we know will be put to good use by this remarkable ministry.

Thanks to the leadership and organizational skill of Marge Paul, our February day at the soup kitchen was a great success. Bill Foster led us off with a powerful prayer reminding me of the 17th Century French saint Vincent de Paul who insisted that serving the poor was our highest privilege. Thankfully, more than enough food was donated and Marge actually had to turn away volunteers! As expected, we fed somewhere around 300 hungry and cold guests. Judging by their unfamiliarity with the ways of the soup kitchen, a fair number were first-time guests of the soup kitchen.

As I doled out plate after plate of salad, I noticed that this large room, filled with a couple of hundred people waiting, eating and serving, was remarkably quiet. The atmosphere was markedly solemn. I also could not help but notice that the vast majority of guests were men. There were only a handful of women, including one who brought her baby in a stroller. As I thought about that, I remembered reading how in the Great Depression the poverty of women and children was largely hidden from public view because they would be at home while the men went out each day looking for work or at least to gather some food for the family.

As Christians, we are called to uncover the hidden poverty in our midst. As Christians we have the privilege and the responsibility to love our neighbors as ourselves and especially to serve the poor. Grace Church offers many opportunities to live out our baptismal promises to seek and serve Christ in all persons and to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being. The Food for Friends canister is always standing by to receive your donations. New volunteers are welcome to help at the soup kitchen. Kit could always use help with Recycling Ministry’s work of picking up donations or delivering items to clients. Or, maybe you can think of a new ministry that can help us serve those in need!

This Lent we are introducing a new program to help us better know and serve our neighbors. During an adult seminar in January, some of us were introduced to the Just Neighbors program. Based on the positive feedback we received, we will offer the Just Neighbors program each Wednesday evening in Lent, beginning March 4, from 7:30 pm to 8:30 pm in Grace Hall. Everyone is invited and encouraged to attend some or all of the sessions. Here is a description of the program from the facilitator’s manual:

Just Neighbors is a way to help your congregation follow one of scripture’s most basic teachings: to love your neighbor as yourself.

It is an interactive multimedia curriculum, an engaging and inspiring educational experience. Its purpose is to help your congregation assist and advocate for their neighbors who are living in poverty.

In a complex, mobile, and busy world, we may not know our neighbors very well. We may not know the difficulties that some of them face. We may not know how to help.

Just Neighbors introduces congregations to some of their neighbors who are in need. It offers insight into their daily struggles. It points the way to greater understanding – not only of problems but of solutions. It inspires people of faith to act on what they’ve learned.

This Lent let us thank God for the privilege of serving our neighbors. And let’s get to work!