Last Thursday, while I was preparing the soup for the street, Claudia Vargas, a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer was sitting across the table from me asking me questions. Her questions, and my meandering answers, forced me to re-examine why I do this ministry. Her article, while very positive, did not expose as deeply as she had delved. I guess she wanted to know if I was the real deal or not before she wrote a sympathetic article. The interview felt more like a visit to a psychologist than a press interview. (I better be careful, or she may send me a bill.)
I shared my stories of having been asked at various churches, “So, how many of the people you feed make professions of faith and end up joining a church?” And my answer: “These people are not rats, and the food we serve is not bait. I am not there to save them. I am there to save me!”
I continued by telling her that that did not make me friends in evangelical churches, who didn’t seem to want to do anything unless it was connected to proselytizing. Just because someone is poor doesn’t mean they need saving. Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20) For the first two years when we were serving over at the Love Park, we didn’t even say a blessing publicly. I felt that we were entering their home. If I were to enter your home as a guest at your table and proceed to stand up and say a prayer in your house, without you asking me to, that would be pretty insulting. So we would bless the food as we made it and before we got out of the car. It wasn’t until one of them asked if they could say a blessing that anything was done publicly on site. Now they expect a blessing and respect that. Now I am one of them, part of the community. Sometimes one of them wants to offer it and that is OK. We have had Muslim blessings and Hindu blessings and Jewish blessings and Evangelical blessings and Catholic blessings and Orthodox blessings and even one Native American blessing. It’s their home. We do it their way.
Claudia followed up by asking, “So you do this to save yourself, to go to heaven?”
I responded, “No. That’s absurd! No one can work to go to heaven. I may still go to hell. I’m still a selfish bastard and an ornery cuss. Ask the people who know me. In the only picture Jesus gives us of the Judgment in Mt. 25, everyone is surprised. So I can’t decide to do this to earn heaven. … At that day some fighting fundies are probably going to be surprised to see some Muslims enter heaven and they’re going to be standing there saying ‘What the ___!'” Then I told her about the Hindu family that saved Christmas for 20 little children.
I just know that God made everyone to do something good. (I’m going to wax more eloquent than I did in the interview, while I was trying to cut carrots.)
Ephesians 2:8-10. Most people forget about verse 10. When I did the “born again” thing in the Baptist church, they gave me Ephesians 2:8-9 “assurance verses” or “salvation verses” when I made my profession of faith. Well it’s verse 10 that is the real aim of the passage.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.
We were created “for good works, which God prepare beforehand that we should walk in them.” This is what I mean when I say I do this ministry ‘to save me.’ Save doesn’t just refer to the great by and by. It also refers to growing in grace and being in God’s will, and all of the aspects that lead to genuine inner happiness, sanctification, and redemption. I am being saved, that is, I know true joy by doing this service, because this is what God prepared for me to do.
How can I say this with such assurance? Isn’t this just the talk of a crazy man? Let me tell you how I got started. In January of 1989 I laid out a vision for The King’s Jubilee. I shared it with Bethann (my wife), and a few close friends, and we prayed about it and decided to launch in February. I presented this vision to about 150 inmates in the E-Block Bible Study at SCI Graterford, a maximum security state prison, during our 1-1/2 hour Saturday morning session. One of the requirements of our organization is that everyone is involved in some way directly in the ministry. There are no Monday morning quarterbacks on the board. So I asked the men what they thought I should do for my personal involvement in The King’s Jubilee. Now this was a novel experiment and a risky business, to have 150 inmates in a free for all discussion, and ask them to arrive at a consensus. This was not an established block with an ordered hierarchy. This was the intake block to the institution. They were all getting to know one another and the prison. Within five minutes, they came to a universally accepted consensus that I should minister to the homeless in center city Philadelphia. I considered that pretty miraculous. I took that as my Macedonian call and we started in February 1989. I recruited a couple of guys and we went down on Wednesday nights. We took over for a little store-front church who were serving two nights a week. We have never seen a reason to quit. We have been harassed by three different mayors. We have been investigated by under cover police at least three times that I am aware of.
We had to sue the current mayor in federal court to continue to serve, and won. In that court case the mayor’s lawyer asked me about motivation, too. He asked, “What percentage of the people who serve the homeless do it out of a religious conviction?” I was a mess on the stand. I was crying the whole time. I was crying for months after the decree was supposed to go into effect and the hearing was no exception. I replied, “All of them, according to Jesus. When I read my Bible, He says that ‘If you have done it unto the least of these you have done it unto Me’, so even if they don’t know it, that is their motivation.” The lawyer wasn’t the least bit happy. He asked, “What percentage would you estimate would they say their motivation is religious?” I said, “Now that would be hearsay. I didn’t think hearsay was admissible in a court of law. If you want me to make a wild guess, I can, but that’s what it would be, a wild guess. I don’t think I can do as well as Jesus. About 70% of the organizations are openly religiously based, but I have friends who are religious who work with Food Not Bombs and LAVA and Occupy who are not religious organizations. Their involvement is still religiously based, so it is still only Jesus who can sort it out, I’m afraid.” I was crying and shaking. The mayor’s lawyer was still not very happy and visibly angry.
The other thing that I wanted to make clear is that I am not anything special. I am just doing what I was made to do. I get upset when people make a big fuss, because that generally means that they are excusing themselves from whatever it is that they are supposed to be doing unto God. Now the good works that God made for you may look, and probably will look, completely different than the good works that God made for me to do. Somebody has to take care of the aging horses. We need compassionate doctors. We all should appreciate our hardworking postal workers, especially the cheerful ones who go the extra mile. I have worked at many different jobs to be able to keep doing this. Through the years, I have painted houses, landscaped, done roof inspection, run blue prints, managed an office, made icons, sold security systems, photocopied, drafted roof details, designed home improvements, sold advertising, waxed floors, detailed houses, etc., all to be able to support myself and my family with a flexible enough schedule so that I could do this ministry. Why? It’s what God made for me to do. I am not happy unless I get to do it. And I want to be happy. I am just that selfish!