Some line up as early as six o’clock in the morning no matter what time of year it is, even though the doors open at the same time every week and there is always more than enough food to be had. Still, they comelittle old ladies with grocery carts, middle aged men. Black, white, Asian, Latino, Christian, Muslim, non-religious, they come rain or shine to The Father’s Heart Ministries (“Father’s Heart”) to get unlimited breakfast and bags of groceries and produce, lining up under the old neon cross that reads “Jesus Saves.” That cross, like another, more famous New York City beacon, welcomes the tired and the poor, those that many in the city might consider “wretched refuse.” Yet, every week a multitude of “guests” wait to enter the church’s old sanctuary to join the feast prepared for them.
But those guests are not the only ones who come to Father’s Heart each week. Hundreds of volunteers from all over New York City and even the country so vie for spots to serve that there is a waitlist to give up a Saturday morning to work in the soup kitchen or food pantry.
I was one of those volunteers. For 15 years (with maybe a few breaks in between), until I moved to Washington DC, I would rise bleary-eyed to spend my Saturday morning assembling and giving out bags of groceries or waiting tables or helping out with the GED class. In the spirit of full disclosure, my parents founded Father’s Heart and continue to run it. One might say that this essay is unfairly biased, that it is “advocacy.” But if that same “one” knows anything about pastors’ or ministers’ kids, you’d also know that we’re often the biggest critics of our parents’ work. So when I say that this is the most authentic experience of Christianity I’ve ever had, you know it’s true.
For the past 17 years, nearly every Saturday morning, Father’s Heart has opened its doors to serve the Alphabet City neighborhood of Manhattan (and beyond) through a soup kitchen, food pantry, GED, ESL, and computer classes, and legal services. In an hour and a half, over 700 people are served an all-you-can-eat breakfast in the church’s sanctuary, where instead of pews you find tables and chairs prepared for their guests.
Every Saturday morning, Pastor Chuck (my dad) provides an orientation for volunteers by describing a scenario: you find a $100 bill on the ground and it is dirty and crumpled and torn in places. Yet despite its appearance, it’s value never diminishes. Like those $100 bills, the guests who arrive each week are image bearers of God and therefore immensely and infinitely valuable. And must be treated by every volunteer as such. To paraphrase the words of Jesus, when you feed the hungry, when you care for the “least” of his brothers or sisters, you are serving Christ himself.
For those who volunteer regularly, who week after week welcome these guests, a curious thing starts to happen in that soup kitchen sanctuary. As each guest is treated with dignity, grace, and the Father’s Heart’s “unconditionals”love, acceptance, commitment,and forgivenessthe often patronizing narrative of “helping those less fortunate” shifts. Volunteers, many of whom are among the most fortunate in New York City in terms of education and opportunities, begin to see their own spiritual poverty and need of the unconditionals.
Despite the lack of pews and ornate decor, that sanctuary filled with tables, chairs, eggs, and coffee is a holy place. It is a temple where the Divine meets its creation and a holy drama is enacted. Theologian Michael Horton said at the 2012 Mockingbird conference, “when you live in a world of fear and scarcity, you demand things of the people around you. The God we need is a liberal* God, a God of abundance. The kingdom of heaven is a feast.”
Christians look forward to the day when all will be made right in the world, when heaven will once again come down to earth. Then sisters and brothers from every tribe and nation will join together in a feast, the “marriage supper of the Lamb.” Each Saturday, volunteers and guests alike get a taste of that meal. As Jesus is incarnated in the guests, when we feed even the least among us, likewise Jesus is incarnated in the volunteers.
Through preparing and serving meals, through giving out groceries, through offering prayer, counsel, and services, each volunteer is the hands, feet, and face of Christ to the guests. Just as Jesus laid aside his glory and honor to serve humanity, volunteers are given the rare opportunity to serve in a world that prefers to cater to the “greatest” among us. And just as God prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies, so every volunteer is given the ministry of preparing a table in the presence of the poverty, injustice, fear, and marginalization that beset our guests. It is no small wonder why there is a waitlist to serve.
Under the neon cross that proclaims “Jesus Saves” guest and volunteer are equal in the eyes of God. Each Saturday they are invited to partake in a holy meal and foretaste of heaven. “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb. These are the true words of God.” (Revelation 19:9)
*Used in the sense of generosity, not political ideology.