Saturday, August 25, 2007

Meeting God at Union Congregational

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Robert called me at work. He usually calls me to chat about gay studies or American history stuff, or to taunt me about being a gay Mormon, but this time he was recruiting. Help was needed at Union Congregational Church, as they were hosting a number of homeless families through a program called Families Moving Forward. They needed someone to be an "overnight host," someone to be available at the church overnight in case any problems came up for any of the families staying there. I would then also help out fixing breakfast the next morning. Robert said they were short on volunteers, and wanted to know if I could help out, and I said yes.

I arrived at the church last night around 8:30 p.m. Kids were running amok in the gymnasium. Parents were still finishing dinner. Dinner hosts were cleaning up and getting ready to leave. Somehow I had failed to get the message that I was supposed to bring my own bedding. Jo, an asthmatic, silver-haired, gregarious woman, all warmth and smiles, greeted me. She was going to be overnight host with me, and told me No Worries, there was plenty of extra bedding for me to use. Her husband Don, who enjoyed tormenting his wife with cornball jokes, and who looked like a retired cowboy with his plaid shirt, jeans, and white handlebar moustache, showed me the room where we'd be sleeping, before he headed home with the dinner crew.

One of the kids had been madly peddling a "Big Wheels" bike around the gymnasium. Suddenly he came to a stop, leaned his head on the handlebars, and fell asleep. Because it was Friday night, the kids were allowed to stay up an extra hour if they wanted, but the truth of the matter was that they'd been awake since 6:00 in the morning.

Jo and I were up late talking about my teaching at UTS in the spring, the writings of Karen Armstrong, the homeless families staying at the church, and the movie Sicko. We finally turned in around midnight. We were up again at 6:30 this morning to prepare breakfast -- scrambled eggs, pancakes, sausage, and bacon. At eight o'clock I made the rounds, knocking on doors to wake up the families, so they could get up, get ready, and eat in time to be on the bus to the FMF Center by nine o'clock. One of the mothers was worried. Her baby had a fever of 100.2. There was nothing we could do. They would have to take care of her at the Center.

But despite that slightly worrisome situation, folks were generally cheery. There was some good-natured joking over breakfast. One young father had to lure a straying toddler back to her chair with a bottle. He dangled the bottle in front of her, and she reached out for it, and then he pulled it away, making her follow. "Don't!" shouts an older sister gleefully, "It's a trap!"

"The old baby bottle trap," I smiled, "Babies can't resist it."

"Nope," the sister grinned back.

By nine o'clock they were gone, and I was helping Jo and husband Don (who'd returned to help out with breakfast) clear off the tables, wash dishes, and sweep bits of sausage and egg off the floor. Soon it was time for me to leave. I was heading off to the flesh pots of the Minnesota State Fair to meet Göran and our friend Jonathan. Jo actually got a little bit emotional. She gave me a big hug and hoped I'd be back, and wanted my phone number so we could talk in the meantime.

At the State Fair, Göran, Jonathan and I gorged on cheese curds, Aussie battered potatoes, roasted corn on the cob, and malted milk shakes, while wandering in and out of crop art displays, the birthing barn (where you could see live animals actually giving birth), and past sculptures of rural Minnesota girls carved in butter. Despite that and all the other sensory gluttony of the Fair (including lots of buff, tan, blond Minnesota boys wandering around in tank tops or without shirts), last night and this morning at Union Congregational kept coming back to me. The most profound moment was a little bit after 7:00 a.m., while I was scrambling eggs and peering out the window, up at a gorgeous, clear blue and pink sunrise, and a feeling of perfect calm came over me. All of my own worries and struggles, my own fearful "working out my own salvation," made a different kind of sense here. My own problems and frustrations looked so much smaller and more petty in this place. Here the gospel made more sense, the Spirit was present without me even trying to feel it. If I wanted forgiveness of my sins, I realized, here they were forgiven.

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