With the first semester of seminary under my belt and a whirlwind of papers put to rest, one that stands out was written for my Christian History class on Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel Movement. I attempted to argue that his historical importance paved the way for progressive faith in the twentieth century and beyond. At the height of the American Industrial Revolution, Rauschenbusch was called to pastor a German Baptist church on the edge of Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan. Here, Rauschenbusch was forced to consider what it meant to be a Christian in the midst of a society suffering from debilitating social injustice. For Rauschenbusch, “the whole aim of Christ (was) embraced in the words ‘the Kingdom of God,’” where one is called to consider the inextricable link between their personal salvation and societal regeneration.
This past summer on the youth mission trip to New York, we volunteered at a “community meal” held some twenty blocks south of where Rauschenbusch had served over a century prior. Times have certainly changed, but the problems haven’t. This community meal was provided, as it has been since 1982, by the Church of the Holy Apostles on the lower Westside. Seven days a week over a thousand persons per day are served hot meals. There, in the beautifully adorned sanctuary, at the foot of the altar, people from all walks of life come together with the common need to be fed.
What I experienced there in the short time we served, was a church flipped on its ear! Without a pew in the sanctuary (long ago ripped out to make way for folding tables and chairs), this sacred space exists as a holy dining hall, serving up a Communion meal for “the least of these.” The tables, made ready daily by a cadre of dedicated volunteers, are set aside briefly Sunday morning so parishioners can attend worship. Then, it’s right back to doing the Gospel as they understand it. They live by simple words, ones that echo Rauschenbusch a century ago: “Our mission is to feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted, seek justice for the homeless, and provide a sense of hope and opportunity to those in need.”
Around Claremont School of Theology there is a lot of talk, and some of it is about the “Emergent” Church and its re-visioning of the way we “do” church. I think HASK (Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen) is on to something; so I shared this with Pastor Al Lopes who was recently called to establish the UCC/DOC Urban Mission Church in South Pomona. As colleagues at CST, Al and I have discussed his plans for establishing a church that meets the community at its greatest need. His community’s immediate need happens to be food, not a 10 AM Sunday worship service.
So, on December 21, about forty Damien High School boys and parents cooked and packaged 300 hot meals and headed down to meet Pastor Al in South Pomona. We made our way by caravan with meals, children’s gifts, and family care packages in tow. Welcomed through the open doors of the sanctuary, we found that Pastor Al had ditched the pews for folding tables and chairs. Christmas place settings adorned each table, Bing Crosby was belting out White Christmas, and a bevy of kids were waiting at the Christmas tree. Like modern day wise men (and women), we entered bearing gifts of radical hospitality and laid them there at the feet of those whom Christ commanded us to love; our neighbors. By doing so, we were serving Him.
What Pastor Al and I both saw that day was a Christmas miracle, a church emerging in a new a vibrant way in the midst of tremendous need. Like Rauschenbusch, a century before us, we found ourselves confronted with the same question; what does it mean to be a Christian church in the midst of a suffering world? Perhaps the answer is found in a heap of discarded pews, in the clutter and clank of a bustling church kitchen, in sanctuary doors flung wide open, in a communion table built sturdy enough to extend out those doors and into a hungry community, in the unwavering embrace of radical welcome that beckons, “The table is set, come and eat!”