So What Do You Do on Friday Night?

It’s Friday night all across America.  What are you doing?  Attending a high school football game, going out for dinner and a movie, grocery shopping, walking the mall, visiting family, or crashing after a hard week?

On the 2nd Friday of every month the tiny congregation of Plainfield UMC in Grand Rapids, Michigan, opens its doors to a hundred individuals and families in the Creston neighborhood.  Although the church accepts donations and some put a dollar in the basket, most people don’t have money to contribute.  They simply need a good, hot meal and some TLC.

Jesse oversees the kitchen, and Ray is outside on the sidewalk grilling hot dogs and hamburgers, a last tribute to summer.  Bob and Wanda drive over from Muskegon because they have a heart for this neighborhood and a gift for engaging our guests in conversation.  Craig rides his bike 10 miles one way from another part of the city to help.  Sharon, Marianne, Pam and Gina supervise the food and clean-up.  Theresa serves, and her husband Jim welcomes people at the door.  Their son is getting married the next day.  Where were you the night before your child’s wedding?

Meanwhile I have the best job: introducing myself to our neighborhood guests and listening to their stories.  “Hi, my name is Laurie, and I’m the new pastor at Plainfield UMC.”  Without exception, everyone expresses gratitude for the dinner and is appreciative for the warm welcome they receive.  However, they will definitely not be attending a football game, taking in a movie, or cruising the mall after dinner.  They are simply trying to survive.   Their stories are heartbreaking, but their spirits are not broken.

Joseph, Tony, and Ron are sitting together.  Joseph asks, “What’s the difference between a born again, a Lutheran, and a Catholic?”

I stumble.  “Hmm.  Well.  Okay.  Lutherans and Catholics affiliate with a specific Christian group.  However, born again is not a denomination but describes a spiritual self-understanding that crosses all boundaries.   Lutherans and Catholics can be born again.  I’m born again, and I’m a Methodist.”

“What’s a Methodist?”

“We’re a community of disciples of Jesus Christ that was started by a man named John Wesley.  We believe that God’s grace is free, and there is nothing we can ever do to earn God’s love.  We also believe that God calls us to love our neighbors.  That’s why we’re having this dinner.”

“I like that.  I’ve been here before.  I’ve gotten food at the pantry.  I was married once and divorced.”

Tony says, “I go to the Open Door Pentecostal Church on Knapp.  We only have about 20 people.  Our pastor is an African-American woman, and she is on fire.  We have healing services on Sunday evening where people fall under the power of the Holy Spirit.  I am a schizophrenic, and the healing prayers help me.  Do you have Sunday evening or weeknight services?”

“I’m sorry, we don’t.  But we do worship on Sunday mornings at 11:15 a.m. with a free breakfast before.  You are always welcome.”

“What’s the difference between Methodists and Pentecostals?”

“None.  We love Jesus and our neighbors just as you do.”

“Love covers a multitude of sins.  I’ve never been married.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” Joseph chimes in.  “I’ve had some hard lessons to learn.”

“Don’t we all,” echoed Tony.

Ron, who lives in the same nearby adult foster care home as Tony, finally enters the conversation and says, “I don’t have a family.”

I move to another table where Randy, Jack, and Sam are sitting.  Randy had a kidney transplant a year ago.  He has experienced numerous complications but says, “Somebody always has it worse off than me.  I feel welcome here.  It doesn’t matter what religion you are.  Just love others.  That’s it.”

“Did you get enough to eat?” I ask Jack.

“You bet.  I grew up with hardly any food, so I’ve learned how to make do with little.

“I watch what I eat because I’m on disability.  If you are smart you can make it on a food card.  But I do come here and to the food pantry, and I go to St. Al’s for the free dinners on Tuesday and Thursday.”

Sam chimes in, “I’m a handyman and a painter, but I don’t have much work .  I learn how to be a smart shopper with my food card.”

Jack says, “I had cancer 5 years ago and went back to work as a furniture refinisher, but I can’t do it anymore.  It’s hard to find a job at 60, but I was raised to work.  I’m no freeloader.  I’ve learned that you don’t need a lot of stuff to be happy.  I’ve had a lot and a little.”

“I want you to know how much we appreciate what you’re doing,” Randy says.

A family with a husband, wife, and 6 small children settle down to eat.  We chat for a few minutes, but they’re really busy making sure their children eat.

I greet a middle-aged man who is holding a 1-month-old baby and is accompanied by 3 teenagers.  Each of the girls asks me to guess how old they are and who the mother of the baby is.  They are 15, 16, and 19 years old.  The 16 year old is the mother.

Alex and Elizabeth share with me that Elizabeth attended Sunday school at Plainfield UMC until she was 10 years old.  She just got a job in a business across the street, and Alex does electronics and computer work.   “I love to help churches.  If you ever need anything, just call me,” Alex said, handing me his card.

Andrea is eating dinner with 2 small children.  Her husband works in Holland, but they were in the area running some errands and saw the sign advertising our dinner.  “What a godsend this is.  Thank you so much.”

I welcome a few parents and grandparents of our Sunday school children.  Two courageous and deeply faithful young adults volunteer every Sunday to teach anywhere from 4 to 15 neighborhood children.  The children show up for breakfast every Sunday morning and then stay for church school.  It’s extremely challenging ministry, with children who come and go at will, have little parental supervision, and are more hungry for the love of Jesus Christ and the care of this church than an actual breakfast.

When the evening is over, we have 6 hot dogs and a few desserts left and no hamburgers and baked beans.  As we’re cleaning up, a few more young men arrive and inhale the rest of the hot dogs.

Are we making a difference on this Friday night in Grand Rapids?  Are we changing the face of poverty in the Creston neighborhood, or are we simply putting on Band-Aids?  It’s making enough of a difference that the church borrowed from its endowment to renovate the kitchen so that outreach meals can be served at least three times a week in the fellowship hall.  We’re not in it to earn money, but what little we raise goes toward mission around the world.

It’s making enough of a difference that when we smelled gas in the afternoon and a technician charged more to fix the stove than we gathered in donations, we smiled and knew that God would provide.  An unexpected $200 donation was sent the next week by a family from another United Methodist church in the area who could not attend the dinner but wanted to help.

It’s making enough of a difference that even though we cannot fix the lives of our guests, we are connecting with our neighbors.  We are sitting at the same tables together, talking about our lives, sharing in God’s bounty, and giving thanks for simple joys like fresh apple pie and a place to sit for a while.  Plus, we’re offering a sneak preview of the heavenly banquet in the kingdom of God.

Come to think of it, this wasn’t just a preview, this was the Kingdom come on this earth: here and not yet.  Kind of like World Communion Sunday.  The menu was different: hot dogs and lemonade rather than bread and grape juice.  The liturgy was different: heart to heart conversation rather than the Great Thanksgiving.  And the setting was different: beat up tables and chairs rather than cushioned pews.  But the same Holy Spirit was present: swirling, dancing, delighting, empowering, encouraging, dispensing hope, and including all at the table.

No one ever gives up at Plainfield UMC.  This small but mighty congregation is convinced that their presence in the Creston neighborhood is leaven, light, love, and hope.  Thirty years from now none of these faithful church folks will probably be around.  Yet there is absolutely no doubt that every person who attends this 2nd Friday dinner and every child who comes to breakfast and church school on Sunday morning will remember Plainfield UMC.  They won’t remember what they ate, but they will remember this:

  • the open doors of this congregation
  • the loving consistency and safety of our presence
  • the stories of a Jesus whose grace won’t ever let them go
  • the sweet, sweet power of the Holy Spirit, which mysteriously blew them in the door and somehow stayed in their heart.

So what do you do on Friday night?



It’s Always Something

“It’s always something,” I sigh as I sit on a chair in a little hallway at Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids. I intend to see a parishioner who is having surgery that morning, but when I ask the receptionist at the desk for his room number, she says, “I am sorry, but I cannot give you any information about Joe Smith.”

“I know Joe’s here because I talked with him 2 days ago, and he asked me to pray with him.”

“Listen carefully. I said that I’m sorry, but there is no information available about a man named Joe Smith.”

Is this a new policy? I’ve been coming here for 19 years, and I’ve never been told this before.”

“I’m sorry.”

“How can I find Joe Smith and pray with him? Can I talk with a hospital chaplain?”

“Why don’t you have a seat over there? I’ll call security.”

Wondering whether security would be my ally or a thorn in the flesh and fearful that Joe would go into surgery before I could see him, I finally let it go, acknowledging that my days hardly ever go as planned. Interruptions, unexpected pastoral needs, traffic jams, children needing counsel, overdue bills, flat tires, broken dishwashers, and buttons falling off as I’m heading out the door seem to be the norm.

For 25 minutes I sit in a busy hospital corridor quietly watching hundreds of people go by: doctors, nurses, technicians, executives, visitors, family members, and patients. Some are crying, some laughing, some talking on cellphones, some looking worried, and some preoccupied with their own thoughts. It’s always something with them, too. Life is difficult.

I remember a conversation I had with my father the previous day. He had been volunteering for a church relief organization for a few years but hurt his back lifting boxes of clothing headed for other countries. Sessions with a chiropractor did not relieve the pain, so my father’s physician gave him stronger pain meds and ordered him not to go to the gym, ride his bike, or play golf for the time being. We commiserate over the phone.

“It’s always something, isn’t it, Dad?”

“Yes, it is. But there’s no use getting upset about it. You just have to keep on.” That stoic yet faithful attitude enabled my father to care for my mother for many years before she died last November from Alzheimer’s.

Of course, the phrase, “It’s always something” brings up far different memories for me than for my father. I remember Roseanne Roseannadanna, an annoying, wild, black-haired woman played by Gilda Radner on Saturday Night Live in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Local network news icon Roseanne Roseannadanna often closed her monologues/tirades with, “It’s always something. If it’s not one thing, it’s another.”

Gilda Radner was one of the great comedians of her day, playing other characters as well, such as Baba Wawa (a spoof of Barbara Walters); hyper Girl Scout, Judy Miller; and Emily Litella, an older, hearing-impaired woman who gave misinformed editorials and when corrected would mutter, “Never mind!” For anyone in my generation, the first image that comes to mind when we hear, “It’s always something” or “Never mind” is Gilda Radner.

Gilda Radner, the person, understood Roseanne Roseannadanna very well because she, too, lived a life where it was always something. Radner’s autobiography, which she aptly titled It’s Always Something, contains this confession, “I coped with stress by having every possible eating disorder from the time I was nine years old. I have weighed as much as 160 pounds and as little as 93. When I was a kid, I overate constantly. My weight distressed my mother, and she took me to a doctor who put me on Dexedrine diet pills when I was ten years old.” Radner suffered from bulimia even as a star on Saturday Night Live and once told a reporter that she had thrown up in every toilet in Rockefeller Center.

In 1986, at the height of her career, Radner began experiencing physical problems which were misdiagnosed for 10 months until it was discovered that she had ovarian cancer. After a long and painful struggle, Gilda died in May of 1989 at age 42, a few months after It’s Always Something was published.

Gilda Radner called cancer “the most unfunny thing in the world,” yet her cancer support group inspired her to live with courage, hope, and humor. Even during her 3 years living with cancer, Radner left a legacy by creating another character, “The Invisible Cancer Woman,” in “The Adventures of the Independent Baldheaded Chemo Patient.”

After Radner’s death, her cancer therapist and her husband, Gene Wilder, remembered Gilda’s words, “Having cancer gave me membership in an elite club I’d rather not belong to.” They started Gilda’s Club, a free cancer support community for children, adults, families, and friends. The first Gilda’s Club opened in New York City in 1995. A Gilda’s Club opened in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 2001 and has raised tens of thousands of dollars the last several years through LaughFest. In 2012, attendance at 323 LaughFest events was 56,294 people, with 1,468 volunteers and millions of laughs.

Have you ever noticed how “it’s always something” in the Bible? The consequence of God’s decision to create human beings with free will is that we are truly free to exercise that will in ways that simultaneously please, disappoint, delight, infuriate, and test the limits of God’s patience and steadfast mercy. It’s all right there in the Old Testament, as the Israelites alternate between valiant efforts to act like God’s people and deliberate attempts to go their own way.

When God finally sent God’s own son to earth to teach and model for us a life of faith, Jesus must have said every day, “It’s always something!” From the stubbornness of the scribes and Pharisees, to the bullheadedness of Peter, to the lack of comprehension of his own disciples, I can imagine Jesus continually throwing up his hands, lamenting with a chuckle, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another.”

In the midst of her battle with cancer, Gilda Radner wrote, “I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without having to know what’s going to happen next.”

How, then, do we live, never knowing from one moment to the next what’s going to happen, how we’re going to pay the bills, or how long our health is going to hold out? And how has the Christian Church persisted for almost 2,000 years in the midst of persecution, doctrinal battles, power struggles, internal conflict, and fighting injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? Can the Church even do more than just survive when “It’s always something?”

Ten Ways to Live When It’s Always Something

1. Carpe Diem: Seize the day. Savor and enjoy the gift of each new morning, no matter what the day may bring.

2. Learn to say “no” to what is not important. With God’s help, set priorities in your life and stick with them.

3. Lighten up! Choose to be flexible, laugh, and “roll with the punches,” acknowledging that life can be incredibly interesting when it’s always something.

4. Claim your power to change the world, at the same time accepting that the things we cannot change will make us stronger and more tenacious.

5. Stay connected with family, friends, and those who offer support and unconditional love.

6. Do your part to create a church that offers community, grace, hope, service, and connection with a God who is much larger than we are.

7. When faced with challenges beyond your control, embrace the reality of your disillusionment, anger, whining, and despair and then allow God to teach you and transform your pain and negative energy into the joy of living freely and lightly.

8. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Say often, “Never mind. It wasn’t that important.”

9. Do not die while you are alive. “While we have the gift of life, it seems to me that the only tragedy is to allow part of us to die – whether it is our spirit, our creativity, or our glorious uniqueness.” (Gilda Radner)

10. “Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.” (Matthew 11:29, Eugene Peterson, The Message)

A security man finally escorts me to see Joe Smith, and we have a wonderful visit. Despite his physical problems and some burdensome family issues, Joe says, “It’s always something. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. But I choose to be positive. I’ve had a good life, and I am not afraid to die. I’ve had wonderful parents, an amazing life, lots of great friends, and a very special church. God has blessed me richly.”

I gratefully thank the receptionist on my way out and wait to hear that Joe came through surgery just fine. Oh, and thank you, Gilda.