A Different Kind of Greeter

“Master … when did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?” Then the King will say, “I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me — you did it to me.” — Matthew 25:37-40 (The Message)

Here at Gather Church, we are discovering the myriad ways we can serve our Lewis County community: Hundreds of individuals come through our doors every week, some of them needing hot meals or clothing, others needing just someone to talk with, and others needing more than Gather by itself can provide.

That’s where we can tie into services provided by other Christian and civic organizations. Our small county abounds with agencies that deal with medical and dental care, substance abuse, mental health, domestic abuse, legal issues, housing, pregnancy, transportation and housing.

Pastor Cole Meckle (pronounced “MECK-lee”) recently led an initial training session for “resource counselors,” volunteers willing to help match those services with the needs of people who walk through the front door of Gather Cafe. The cafe has grown into a spot where Gather folks can socialize any day of the week, where students from Centralia College, which is just across the street, can sip coffee and study, and where homeless and lonely people are welcomed and embraced.

“God promises to be with the poor,” Cole explained during the session. “Jesus calls us to some pretty radical hospitality.”

Listening as ministry

Gather Cafe, a place where we can express the heart of kindness that we ourselves have been shown.

Three or four times a day, a person will come into the cafe for the first time, hurting, cold and confused. That person needs more than just a cup of free coffee.Having someone there who is open to conversation can change a person’s day, and sometimes his life. Cole described how people are often surprised by how they are welcomed.

One fellow, Philip, said he met Jesus when he was accepted instead of being shunned. “I asked him about his tattoos to break the ice,” Cole said.

“People’s lives are complicated, and we can offer them help while preserving their dignity. People don’t need to feel worse about themselves.”

Just a short, welcoming conversation can be a first step in helping a person in need. Cole said he has been surprised by how willing people are to talk about how they got into their situation.

A hungry stomach or cold hands may be the immediate need, but usually there are deeper unmet needs. Someone requesting financial resources may need help in creating a budget, for example. Or someone with housing needs may be escaping a domestic violence situation.

The church or other agencies can help the symptoms, but Jesus helps the cause. The ultimate goal of Gather is to establish a relationship with people and help them build better lives in Christ.

This is the essence of evangelizing, or “gospeling,” Cole said: declaring the Lordship of King Jesus in deed and word. We’re not pressuring people to join anything. Instead we want them to feel cared for and relaxed enough to talk through their options. God has made an appointment for us to minister with Him.

Digging deeper

Part of the training for resource counselors is learning to discern the truth of people’s situations. “You may need to ask the same question in multiple ways at multiple times in the conversation,” Cole said. “Out of desperation, someone may tell you what they think you want to hear in order to get the help they need. They may exaggerate, ‘sweeten the pot.’”

We’re not trying to catch people in lies, he emphasized. We’re just trying to find them appropriate help for their specific needs.

Any given person may not know Jesus as Lord. Cole advised us not to assume either way. We should establish trust and not make someone feel as though we will not meet her request if she doesn’t know Jesus or that we will for sure if she does.

Our agenda should not be bait-and-switch. We should, however, be open to sharing Jesus.

Batting .500

Cole said he figured about half the people who get help are gaming the system just to get a bag of groceries or a tank of gas or a night in a motel.

“There will be times we will get ripped off, and I don’t care. I care about people having hope in their lives, having a relationship with Jesus. That’s what is different about us as a church. We’re not concerned with tracking outcomes.”

Getting this involved in people’s lives can be both wearying and energizing, so having more volunteers ready to sit down and talk with strangers spreads both the burden and the blessing.

Sometimes “church people” need to have their eyes opened to what’s going on outside their walls. “Widows raising grandchildren in this community are having their power cut off,” Cole said. “That is just not OK!

“Throughout Scripture, God’s people are called to care for the marginalized: the widow, the orphan, the stranger,” Cole said. “Caring for the needs of others is central to the life of Jesus’ followers. Without intentional care for the poor, the church will be at best immature, and at worst, not really the church.”

— Steve Brown