This summer the Storyline House Church I’m part of decided to resurrect “Neighbors Lunch” ministry like we did in the “early days” of Storyline (because we’re so old now).
The idea initially came to us from Luke 14, where Jesus says something like: “If you’re going to throw a party, don’t invite your rich friends who can repay you. Instead invite the lame, the crippled and the poor. They can’t pay you back so God will have to be the one to reward you.”
We began to wonder: what if we took Jesus seriously and actually did that? I have found that those who ask this question are typically on the cusp of a transformative experience. That’s certainly been the case for us.
So we gathered on a Tuesday night at our house. We spent time time praying together. We asked the Lord to lead us to people we could offer love and hospitality.
One small detail made this Neighbors Dinner significantly different than others in the past: we didn’t yet know who was coming to dinner. In 2008, our friend Chad Matthews introduced us to a group of impoverished neighbors and brought them to our first Neighbors Lunch. This time we had to invite from scratch. Ex nihilo. “Out of nothing” – just like God in creation.
I’ve got to admit I was a bit nervous – okay, afraid – about this part.
So our House Church sent out a group of 3 of us to walk the streets and invite people to a pizza party. They continued praying while we walked.
We had no agenda other than to share a good meal with our poor neighbors and build relationship with them.
The three of us drove down the street we were about to walk in Vickery Meadows, a pretty rough neighborhood in Dallas. One side was lined with apartment complexes. The other side had several bus stops and a high-traffic retail center where we were going to have the party. There were a bunch of people getting off buses and walking up and down the street. I was excited! I anticipated that we would have a big party!
But by the time we parked near the restaurant where we were hosting the party and walked back to the street, almost everybody was gone! I guess they went straight home after work.
We walked down one side of the street. Not one person.
We walked halfway up the other side of the street. Nobody.
My stomach began to sink – what if there’s no one to invite? We asked the Lord to show us who he wanted at the party.
Our approach to “cold turkey” invitation like this one is as non-confrontational and chill as possible. We “put out our peace” and see who responds positively to it. “Putting out our peace” entails smiling at people, looking them in the eyes, and saying something like “How’s it going?” Those who welcome us and respond positively are like the “people of peace” that Jesus talks about in Luke 10.
About halfway up the other side of the street we walked past a few people. One of them looked at me. I smiled, looked him in the eyes, and said “Hey man. How’s it going?” as we passed by.
He laughed at me and kept walking.
“Lord, show us who you want at the party.”
We saw several people on the other side of the street and so we crossed over to try to intersect their path.
We passed them one by one, smiling, making eye contact, saying hey.
The last person we passed turned around and said, “Hey guys, can you help me? I’m really hungry today.”
We said to him: “We have been praying for you! We’re actually about to have a pizza party and we were out here inviting people to join us. No strings attached, just a chance to have a good meal and make some friends.”
Our new friend, Kenny, was delighted. We walked to the restaurant together and met up with the rest of our House Church to eat at the pizza buffet.
On our walk to the restaurant, we learned that Kenny had just been released from prison after a 15-year sentence. He was arrested for sleeping in some Texan’s backyard while “free riding” around the country. Kenny also shared that he was HIV positive and was struggling to find a job because of all the cards stacked against him. A social service organization had kindly helped him get an apartment in Vickery Meadows, but he had resorted to panhandling to provide for his basic needs.
At the party, it was beautiful to see everyone love on Kenny. I was most moved to see my kiddos get to interact with him. They are learning at an early age to be friends with those our society often shuns.
During dinner Kenny expressed to a few of us that he was very depressed. He was estranged from his mother in Chicago, the only immediate family member still around. He was forced to live in Texas because of his parole. He didn’t know anyone. He was very lonely.
Kenny said, “I wonder sometimes if it’s even worth living any more.”
One of the house church members responded to Kenny and said: “Kenny, God loves you very much. You were created in God’s image and so you have infinite value. God has a plan for your life!”
Kenny replied: “Do you really think so?”
We wondered if Kenny had ever heard anything like that before.
We got some groceries for Kenny later that night and have continued to walk with him as he gets an ID, connects to CitySquare, gets signed up for food stamps, and looks for a job. And he’s been entering more fully into the life of our community, too – coming to other parties, church gatherings, even helping set up!
Interestingly, those who have been among the most generous to Kenny have been other Storyliners in poverty. One man gave Kenny $16 he didn’t have so that Kenny could apply for an ID through CitySquare.
This is a big win for us; a win for the kingdom of God; and a win for God’s justice. We praise God for the way he is using us to share life and hope with the downtrodden…one person at a time.
What creative ways are you finding to engage poor neighbors around you?
What obstacles keep us from entering into relationships with those in poverty?