This last Sunday my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) had a nation-wide Sunday dedicated to service in honor of our 25th anniversary as a church body.
Good stuff happened all over the country as people took to the streets to do acts of kindness and charity.
And we did this all the while knowing that acts of kindness and charity are poor replacements for systemic change and activism.
Really; that’s just the plain truth. Systems don’t change because I’ve handed a person a sandwich. Systems change when I press back against a culture that creates the have-nots in the shadow of the haves.
But there is something to be said for the stop-gap measure that passing out a sandwich can do.
I know this because this last Sunday one of our service offerings was what we called “Operation PB&J.” We made about 100 sandwiches in our church basement utilizing people’s gifts of peanut butter, jelly, and bread, and then a few of us took the train downtown to pass them out to whoever wanted one.
We passed out 100 sandwiches in just under 2 hours, and we walked about a mile and a half.
I want you to pause to let that sink in.
When we got of the train at Chicago and State (just West of the north end of what is known as the Magnificent Mile), we started looking around to see who might be hungry. This is trickier than you might think because, believe it or not, hunger is not always on the faces of people you pass. All sorts of questions raced through my mind.
What if we approached someone who was offended that we thought they were hungry? What if someone asked us for more than sandwiches (which they did)?
We were also wearing our t-shirts that prominently said “God’s Work. Our Hands.” and a part of me worried that people would mistake us passing out sandwiches on busy Michigan Avenue with actually doing “God’s Work.”
In one way it is; people need to eat. In many ways it’s not. Charity often just props up a cycle of degredation where the haves can give to the have-nots and feel like they’re doing good.
This all weighed on me.
But as we passed out sandwiches on the street, what was God’s work more than anything were the interactions that we had while doing it. I’m so impressed with our Youth Director, Brian. After passing out every sandwich he’d tell me the name of the person he gave it to, and often something about their situation. And they were sure to know his name, too. And some of them even got his church card and an invitation to our community.
This, truly, was God’s barrier-breaking work.
And we met Marcus on Lower Wacker Drive, the underbelly of opulence in the city of Chicago. Lower Wacker is literally feet below the Magnificent Mile, and yet there is no magnificence to behold. When I came upon Marcus he was telling some teens in a shiny white Lexus that they needed to get back up to the main level.
“Hey, can I interest you in some sandwiches?” I said.
“Sure, man. I’ll take two.” Marcus said. No problem, I had plenty.
And then my two companions met Marcus and we asked him where we could pass more out.
“If you go just north of here and around the corner, there’s a whole strip of people over there.”
So we gave him thanks and followed his directions. And sure enough, we came upon a small village of men and women living on Lower Wacker with shiny Trump Tower visible just over the river. Some were asleep, some were chatting, some were doing business. And we started passing out sandwiches, one after another, sometimes three at a time. And we put them by the sleeping heads, and on some cardboard mats whose owners were off doing other things in the city.
And as we walked out onto the River Walk, we took note of the vast difference between the shopping district of the Magnificent Mile and the shopping district of Lower Wacker.
God’s work would be to flatten those economies in a way that changed life for everyone. And I do mean everyone. Because it would change the life of the Mag Mile stores and their patrons (and I’m one of their patrons at times) as well as the patrons of Lower Wacker.
For instance, in most of those stores on the Mag Mile you’ll see a sign that says, “Bathroom is for Patrons Only.”
I get that.
But then you have parts of Lower Wacker that absolutely reek of the acid-smell of urine…and some of the River Walk patrons noted it as they passed, wondering why people would pee there.
Where else is there to go in the place where feet separate the lives of the haves and have-nots, and yet you’re not welcome to utilize the city sewer system through a flush toilet?
Bathrooms are for people with money?
No, bathrooms are for people with functioning biological flush systems, and yet we put a value on even our ability to flush our bodies these days.
That’s symptomatic of an unequal economy.
There would, of course, be many more changes. Perhaps the lights wouldn’t shine so brightly, and the rents wouldn’t be so high because there would be less money circulating as more hands had some rather than fewer having more.
Something inside of me says that’s God’s work more than our passing out sandwiches. And yet, I know we did good. We did do God’s work on many levels…and failed on others.
You realize that life is a mixed bag when you have the resources that allow leisure time enough to reflect on it.
As we walked up Dearborn toward Chicago Avenue, we met a mother and two children. She had a nice stroller, and the kids were dressed decently, and you probably wouldn’t know she was hungry just by looking at her. On a whim, though, I said, “Can I interest you in sandwiches?”
She smiled widely and said, “Yes, please!” Her little boy and little girl introduced themselves to us, Jayda and Jayden. We had planned on going into the lobby of the Chicago YMCA to pass out the rest of our sandwiches, about a dozen, but this mom happily took the rest. We all introduced ourselves and she thanked us heartily.
As we walked away Brian said something that I think was really true, “I think we just made her week a little easier.”
Yeah. I think we did, too. That’s God’s work done with my hands on Sunday, September 8th.
But what am I prepared to do to make her life easier? That’d be God’s work done with my life…and I’m sometimes a reluctant Christian because Christians continue to confuse that reality.