By Angela Williams, NYAPC’s Young Adult Volunteer
“Come on in, grab a cup of coffee. Take a seat and stay a while. You’ll hear stories you’ve never imagined.”
These are the words my friend Bobby* said to a group of tourists who stopped by a few Sundays ago to visit the historic New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. The women walked into the open doors of the Radcliffe Room during the height of our Sunday morning activity. They were seeking spaces where former Presidents Abraham Lincoln and John Quincy Adams worshiped. They likely wanted to take pictures of the iconic stained glass windows that line the walls of the sanctuary. When they walked into the first set of open doors, they likely did not expect to see almost 100 men and women experiencing varying levels of homelessness eating breakfast, drinking coffee, singing hymns, waiting in line for clothes, and fellowshipping with each other and volunteers.
I welcomed the women to our church but recognized that they likely did not come to New York Avenue to see the Radcliffe Room. I directed them to the front desk, which they could access either by staying on the sidewalk and entering the next set of doors or by walking through the Radcliffe Room, through the hustle and bustle of life happening in the space. They hesitated, and ultimately opted to leave the foyer and continue on to the main set of doors. Bobby welcomed the group but looked at me to say what we both knew would happen: they would go around. Bobby is one of our guests who doubles as a volunteer.
When I started working in the Radcliffe Room seven months ago, I found my home in the clothing closet. Each Sunday, I arrive at 7:30 am and take the next forty-five minutes to prepare the men and women’s clothing closets while the other volunteers prepare the food. This involves hanging up whatever donations we received in the last week, bringing down supplies from our storage room three floors up, rolling the racks of women’s clothing out to the stage, our designated safe space for women, and arranging racks and bins so guests can easily navigate the spaces. That takes a lot of work, and I often found myself frustrated that I carrying the burden alone. Many guests would offer to help me out, but I always politely declined. I’m a YAV; I can do anything.
At some point, my usual helpers started showing up the same time I did, and I finally decided to surrender my self-sufficient ego to accept assistance from those I thought I was supposed to serve. All of a sudden, the burden seemed lighter, and my mood shifted. I could come to the Radcliffe Room every Sunday and be confident that the clothing closet would be ready to open at 8:15 thanks to the help of Bobby, Jaq*, Lee*, Darwin*, and many of the other guests who offer their hands every week.
In January, my supervisor, Jessica, and I read Toxic Charity by Bob Lupton, in preparation for the 2016 NEXT Church National Gathering, where he would be a keynote speaker. I found myself questioning my work and mission in church settings, particularly in the Radcliffe Room. Despite the critique he has received, his fundamental shift of how we approach mission resonated with me. Why not welcome guests who want to give back to the ministry? Why not welcome internal investment? Perhaps that was the nudge I needed to truly partner with our guests to blur that line between volunteer and guests, us and them.
At the NEXT National Gathering, Aisha Brooks-Lytle powerfully brought the Word, reminding all in attendance that we can’t go over it, can’t go below it, can’t go around it; we’ve gotta go through it. Sharing the good news of Jesus Christ also means that we have to be willing to accept it from others. Living out the Gospel requires us to get messy and be in real relationship with God’s beloved Creation. When we tell the story of a historical church, we can share tales of giants of the faith who advised Presidents, Congress, and the Supreme Court, but we should also include how the fabric of the church is intertwined with our neighbors in places without power. We are called to go through it in proximity with those who are poor, deprived, oppressed, marginalized, exploited, and suffering. The next time someone walks through the first open door, why don’t we invite them to come in, grab a cup of coffee, take a seat, and stay a while? We all may hear a story we never imagined.
*Names have been changed.