Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (James 2:1-13) transports me to the first time Kim and I experienced 5-star fine dining, at the Bristol Bar and Grille in the Highlands of Louisville, KY, on the night of our first date in the fall of 1985. It had some local flavor, like the famous hot brown, and the menu also included references I had never heard of, things like clarified butter and béarnaise, which I didn’t know how to pronounce. The food was indeed fine. Our next foray into the level of fine dining requiring reservations came a couple of years later, in downtown Atlanta. Similarly, there was some local flavor, dubbed “southern comfort food with a twist,” like chicken and waffles, as well as some items I had never heard of. This time, though, instead of donning our best duds and sitting at one of the elegant tables, we donned aprons and began chopping vegetables in the kitchen, under the supervision of the 5-star chef. We were volunteering at Cafe 458, an innovation in service to homeless persons founded by our friend A.B. Short. A.B. had long been involved in hunger and homelessness issues, and had come to the conclusion that too many urban ministries stigmatized the poor and deprived them of dignity. He envisioned a lunch feeding program at the other end of the spectrum from the traditional soup kitchen approach where hundreds of people wait in line for someone to ladle soup into bowls and hand out a piece of bread and a drink. Cafe 458, located near the King Center, is instead a small restaurant that looks like any other gourmet dining establishment. It even requires reservations; the homeless persons need to have a referral from a homeless ministry to get on the list. Once on the list, they can come to the cafe for lunch; as they come through the door they are greeted by a maitre d’ and seated at one of the tables. A waiter gives them a menu from which they can choose their meal, and they get served as well as anyone in any of Atlanta’s best restaurants. Many of the wait staff and cooks are, like we were, volunteers, while others are people who have transitioned out of homelessness and are learning culinary and restaurant management skills. Also on the “menu” at the cafe is a variety of services that can be accessed in the building, such as Legal Aid, counseling, recovery programs, etc.
Two millennia prior to A.B. Short’s creative ministry innovations, the epistle writer James well understood the tendency of poor people to get stigmatized and deprived of dignity. Instead of it happening around food, though, James saw it in the church meetings. It was as if the believers were confusing their meeting houses with five-star accommodations for the well-to-do. James implored them to avoid these temptations to favoritism and discrimination. If some people come through your chapel doors donning their best duds, James writes, with the accoutrements of bling bling signaling their status, don’t have a fit trying to accommodate them with the best seat in the house, while you consign the folks wearing the latest Rescue Mission ensemble to a corner of the floor. To put it simply, don’t discriminate. And yet, at the core of this call to avoid partiality and favoritism, is the favoritism and discrimination of God: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised? The added irony in having the faith community kowtow to the rich is that the rich are the very ones who exploit and dishonor God’s chosen ones, the poor. James is calling for a radical reversal of these cultural trends and values.
A.B. Short’s experiment in being part of that radical reversal at 458 Edgewood Avenue in Atlanta, has spawned many replications and other innovative ways to demonstrate radical hospitality to the hungry, offering dignity for growling souls as well as food for growling stomachs. One relatively new experiment in this kind of ministry and inclusion in our community is the Welcome Table. At several locations in and around Asheville, a weekly lunch is served, with everyone invited, rich and poor, with and without homes, all feasting on five-star fine dining. If you have resources, you are invited to make a contribution. If not, no problem. At the Fairview Welcome Table, much of the food is locally grown at the nearby Lord’s Acre, and it is served buffet style. At the downtown Welcome Table, tables of 8 quickly fill up and the food is served family style, with bowls and platters present on each table for the people to pass one to another, reminiscent of communion. An irony for me is that while all these efforts and many others like them around the country are indeed removing some of the stigma from poverty, the experience marks those who participate deeply; it is almost like getting a stigmata, a visible sign of the cruciform life, the life of suffering love. That’s the kind of stigmatization we need not erase.
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.