Last Sunday, the session met to talk about issues related to our Wednesday lunch program. The meeting was prompted by an incident of violence at the meal on August 23, but it’s probably true that the conversation was overdue. When we transitioned from a Sunday to Saturday breakfast program, we spent weeks analyzing our practices, enlisting new partners, recruiting volunteers, and identifying key leaders in the church, all so that when we opened the doors that first Saturday we could feel that we did everything possible to be successful – and we were. Recently the Saturday coordinating team met, as they do regularly, to talk about the current state of the program and find ways to make it even better – and we did.
The Wednesday lunch program, at least in my three years at DPC, has not received similar attention. Our amazing building manager, Paulino Jarquin, has been almost single-handedly administering the program – everything from food purchases to volunteer coordination. And I cannot sing his praises loud enough. I also cannot, nor can anyone else, immediately replicate his efforts. And therein lies a singular problem: the success of Wednesday lunch rests almost entirely on one person.
The fight that broke out last Wednesday had absolutely nothing to do with Paulino’s administration. I want to be clear and unequivocal on that. I’ll say it again, Paulino has done exemplary work. The fight was, perhaps, a wakeup call, an invitation to reevaluate our practices so that we can continue to serve Nashville’s homeless and urban poor community with integrity, consistency, coordination and security. We were fortunate that neither staff nor volunteers were injured. But one of our guests – a man named Scott who has been a regular, peaceful participant on Wednesdays – was badly beaten.
And in the many conversations I’ve been having over the last week, I’ve discovered that incidents of violence in the homeless community seem to be rising. I was having a conversation with a young man named Bruce yesterday. He was wearing sunglasses which he removed to show the deep bruising and cuts around his nose and eyes. Bruce was jumped, robbed and beaten a day or two before. I hear of reports from other food programs where things have gotten bad. All of this is symptomatic of an increase in the homeless population in Nashville that is at least commensurate with the overall growth. DPC’s own Community Assistance Fund is nearly depleted because of the demand for IDs and birth certificates from homeless or low-income people moving to Nashville. We’ve had to limit the assistance we offer only to IDs and birth certificates and even with that we’re writing two or three times the number of checks per week we were less than a year ago.
These are just some of the internal and external circumstances that led the session to decide to suspend our Wednesday lunch program while we can evaluate and reconfigure it. On Wednesday, August 30, I let both volunteers and guests know that next Wednesday, September 6, we’ll be handing out bag lunches (much like we do the Wednesday before Waffle Shop), and we’ll stop serving effective on September 13. But I also asked the volunteers to gather on September 13 at 11:00 a.m. so that we can enlist their help in reevaluation and tap into their wisdom. We’ve been blessed with a dedicated group of women and men who come nearly every Wednesday to set up Fellowship Hall, prepare the food, pour the drinks, wash the dishes, wipe the tables, take out the garbage and much more. My respect and appreciation for them is boundless, and their knowledge and participation is essential if we are to be successful going forward.
I want to conclude by praising the dignity and respect shown by the vast majority of the guests who listened to my announcement yesterday and who received it gracefully and with understanding. Certainly there was disappointment and sorrow, and tears were shed – I wept a good bit myself. I also exchanged more handshakes and hugs yesterday than I ever have. The expressions of gratitude for what we’ve done far outnumbered the few disparaging remarks.
I have learned much in the work DPC has invited me to do in the homeless community. It can be frustrating, heartbreaking, sometimes discouraging work. It can fill you with righteous indignation at the powers that seem to almost systematically perpetuate homelessness. I have also had my faith strengthened by their faith, my perceptions challenged by the variety of their stories. I have seen acts of hospitality and generosity within the homeless community that make me question what those words even mean. I have been invited into the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who stood with and provided for and wept with those at society’s margins.
I hope anyone reading this message today will consider joining our efforts to reestablish our Wednesday program, whether by serving on an oversight committee, volunteering on Wednesday afternoons, coordinating appeals in your church or workplace, or simply being in deep prayer as we seek, however imperfectly, to continue our participation of the revelation of God’s kingdom at DPC.
See you Sunday!
Grace and peace,