by Kate Layzer
Overcoming the injustice of homelessness, the shortage of emergency beds, the lack of affordable housing, the critical gap between addiction and mental health resources and the growing need for services—all this requires civic engagement by activists and justice workers. A small weekly drop-in center in a church hall isn’t going to reverse years of inadequate public policies around homelessness.
Yet God is most certainly working transformation in our church members and neighbors, homeless and housed—and doing it in God’s own distinctive way, mustard-seed style, person to person: turning “us and them” to us in community, bringing healing in invisible but I hope lasting ways, as we carry what we’ve experienced back out into the world with us.
You can witness this transformation in First Church’s parish hall-turned-café.
Every Friday at noon volunteers from First Church in Cambridge, Congregational, UCC transform the church hall into The Friday Café, with serving tables, café seating, music (streamed from the Internet), and good, nourishing food. Also offered are donated clothing, hygiene supplies, electronic charging stations, board games, art materials, community bulletin boards and a free lending library. [You can read about the Café in this Spotlight article.]
The idea for the Friday Café first came to me through conversations on the streets of First Church’s neighborhood of Harvard Square. Drawn to begin a street outreach ministry in the Square after two years helping out with homeless ministry at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Paul in Boston, I began asking the people I met what would be helpful to them. Was there a night of the week where there was nowhere to go for a meal? What could the church offer?
After hearing several requests for a day-time warm-up place that supplied meals, a proposal to the church’s Executive Council was submitted and then approved for a pilot program in the form of a wintertime drop-in space.
This gathering space has a simple, manageable setup that focuses on human needs. But for me — a First Church member and community minister focused on street outreach—it’s just a container for the real life of the Café, which is people together.The Café offers warmth and food, clothing and toothpaste. But much more importantly, it brings homeless and housed into community; the life of the street with the lives of church members. For a few precious hours each week, people can sit and talk over a cup of coffee and a bowl of soup. As they do, the barriers between these worlds are eroded. People become more visible to each other as people.
For me, this “being with” is closer to the heart of the gospel than a traditional charity model. The “us helping them” approach can actually serve to drive a wedge between people. It maintains distance and difference. It re-enforces the privilege of some and the neediness of others. The emphasis at the Friday Café is on respect and community.
Transformation happens because people are encouraged to open their hearts: to listen and be present, person to person.
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