Back in junior high, I was a pretty good kid. But I had my limits. Case in point. In 1985, my mom came up with a grand plan to orchestrate “The Best Christmas Ever.” For us kids, we would have been over the moon for a shopping spree at Toys-R-Us or the mall. But Mom? Her recipe for Holiday bliss involved the usual heavy dose of forced family fun. “This year,” she told us “we’ll be serving at the Red Andrews Christmas Dinner.”
Insert chorus of groans.
For those of you who don’t know, the Red Andrew’s Christmas dinner is a 60-year-old Christmas tradition in Oklahoma City, where no fewer than 8,000 of your closest homeless friends come to enjoy a meal and some Holiday Cheer at the downtown convention center. You can imagine my delight at getting to set aside all of Santa’s gifts to freeze my keester off and head downtown to serve a meal to people I’d never met.
I’d prefer a lump of coal, thanks.
On the drive down to the Convention center, Mom cooked up a pretty strong sales pitch.
“Maybe you could pass out toys to the kids”, mom said. “Wouldn’t that be fun?!”
Her enthusiasm helped. A little.
Narcissism makes a great stocking-stuffer. After a few minutes, I had visions of playing the role of the world’s only 117-pound Santa, handing out gifts to cherub-cheeked kids who would giggle and squeal with delight. I might even get to deliver some brownies to a few hungry folks. I started to believe that this might be a Christmas I could be proud of.
When we showed up, we met the volunteer coordinator. She was a frazzled mess of anxiety and activity. A lot goes into coordinating dinner for a large army of people. When we asked how we could help, and she said, “We have enough servers, we also have plenty of people wrapping and handing out gifts. Where we really need help is maintaining the line.”
We quickly found out that “maintaining the line” meant that we would be policing the lobby area, where thousands of needy, very hungry people had gathered. Our job was, in no uncertain terms, to assure that no one cut in line. It’s just as much fun as it sounds.
Some decisions were easy. Unruly guy, smelling of booze, irritating lots of people?
Please go back to your place in line.
Others were harder.
Seventy-five-year old woman with a bad hip using a walker?
Back of the line, granny!
Scary, six-foot-five-inch, muscle-bound biker covered in prison tattoos?
Dad, you take that one.
Needless to say, our expectations were transformed. What started in my head as grand plans to pass out toys and brownies became the most uncomfortable Christmas I’d ever experienced. As with all things, God puts us in uncomfortable situations for a reason. I just had no clue what that reason was. Sure, we probably did some good that day. The coordinators needed help, and we may have prevented conflict and altercations on the Lord’s birthday. There’s something to be said for that, right? So, we were serving, and in way, letting God work through us. The only problem? We weren’t letting God work in us.
About eight summers ago, I had a shot at redemption. My brother, whom I had idolized for my entire life, had become the youth leader along with his wife at his church in Kansas City. When I was a kid, I tried to walk like him and talk like him. I wanted to dress like him. Thanks to a wardrobe made up of 80% hand-me-downs, I got to dress JUST like him, only five years out of style. To this day, I even write in all caps ‘cause that’s how he did it. The only thing I didn’t idolize was the giant perm he got back in 1982. The guy looked like a walking stalk of broccoli.
I heard that my brother was having trouble funding a youth mission trip to Harlan, Kentucky, a town tucked away in the Appalachian Mountains where we in America hide some of our poverty. There was a chance they would have to cancel.
At that time, I had a really well-paying job, and more money than I needed. Here was my chance to be the hero! Talk about pride. As I wrote the check, a sizeable one, I couldn’t help but think of the look on his face when he opened the envelope. Wow… My little brother must have made it!
Well, the reaction wasn’t quite what I had expected. While my brother was very grateful for the check, he asked for something more.
“You should come with us!” He said. “I need another youth sponsor!”
I thought to myself, Did you not see all the zeroes on that check? Decimal-point-free, bro!
I wish I could say that I jumped at the chance, but signing my name on the trip release form to go to Kentucky took much more effort than signing the check. But this was my chance to do meaningful work and serve the poor. No line maintenance on this trip.
So, I was off to Harlan.
We spent the week doing some very amazing things. Small groups of kids roofed homes, some painted houses, others cleaned. My job was to lead a team of 6-8 youth at a different site. It was a combination warehouse/food pantry. That week, we worked to renovate an upstairs area for homeless in transition. If they needed a place to stay for a few weeks while they got back on their feet, they could crash at the pantry. We pounded nails, we sawed boards, we did demolition work. We even helped clean out the food warehouse itself. The most challenging part was the disposal of 1000 pounds of rotten potatoes, the bulk of which needed to be moved by hand from the warehouse to the dumpster. It was God’s work.
Each night, we would reflect on the good work we had done for the poor. We were proud of ourselves. Again, narcissism makes a great stocking-stuffer.
At the end of the week, the warehouse had its normally scheduled “Soup Kitchen.” This was the day where they opened up the warehouse to serve meals. So, the final activity of the week would be seeing some of the people that we were working to help. We continued working on the transition center it came time to serve the meal. We washed up and started to don our hair nets. The homeless were gathering in a line outside the door.
That’s when my brother came in.
(Note: the above word is censored because my mom reads this blog and sent me the following email: Received a phone call from xxxxxxx xxxxxxxx and she was so excited to read your blog; however, she was going to forward it to her church friends, but felt that the word "%$@#$!)" would be offensive. It really doesn't sound like you either Scotty, so just white it out!! Love the blog - very entertaining, just watch your language......from your MOTHER )
He looked around and saw that the regular volunteer crew was enough to serve the meal. So, he said,
“There are plenty of folks to serve, what I’d like you to do is just sit down and have a meal with these people. Get to know them. Make some new friends.”
All of us stood and stared blankly at him. The silence was deafening. The kids looked toward the line. Standing there were the mentally ill, the homeless, and former prisoners. These were all people who most of their parents had told them to avoid when walking alone at night.
Or during the day.
The voice planted in everyone’s head at that point, including mine, was “We were here to serve. Not to make friends.”
My inner voice was saying, “I’m comfortable when there’s some distance between me and the homeless. Maybe separated by a sneeze guard, or a gloved hand, or a boxed gift. Or, distracted by hammers and shovels and tools for building, so I can ignore the fact that there is a real person standing next to me that I could be connecting with. But to truly connect? That’s too much. Besides, what do I have in common with these people?”
It was Red Andrews all over again. Inside, I was terrified. I wanted to run. But I didn’t have that luxury. I was supposed to be leading. Outside, I said, “OK guys, let’s do it!”
The kids were not so outwardly enthusiastic.
We got into the line and got our food. I found a table, sat down next to a man wearing a tattered flannel shirt and blue jeans two sizes too big. I introduced myself. “Hello, I’m Scott. “
He said, “I’m Clint Eastwood.”
So I guess both of us were nervous.
Now what do I say? The normal questions of “where do you live, what do you do for a living” seemed too risky.
“So, have you been in this area long?”
And that was it. We talked for 30 minutes. About childhood, playing in the mountains of Appalachia, of dads and moms, of pets and school. We were people. Talking. Sharing a meal. Connecting.
The meal was over. We put up our trays, and cleared the table. Then there was the awkward moment when it was time to part ways. Before he left I held out a hand,
“Well, thanks for dinner. It was good to meet you, Clint.”
He took my hand and said…
“It’s David. Nice chattin' with ya’”
I wish I could say that David and I have remained friends. You know the kind. Making occasional phone calls. Maybe swapping Christmas cards. Well this isn’t that kind of story.
Throughout our lives, God puts us in uncomfortable situations. Like I said before, that discomfort is there to teach us something. Sometimes you miss the point. Sometimes it’s crystal clear.
My meal with David sent the simple message that we’re on this planet to make genuine connections, and that can’t happen unless we remove all judgment and pretense, and really connect. Face to face, person to person, soul to soul. When we look into the eyes of others and share ourselves in this way, we give the gift of dignity. We meet the Christ that lives in all of us – especially those on the margins – the homeless, the orphaned, the imprisoned, the sick, the troubled, the downcast. And isn’t that what Jesus wants most of all?
To meet us in our day-to-day.