Monday, January 21, 2013

The Glowing Face of Mission by Suzanne DeWitt

This past weekend I attended a Diocesan Regional Learning Days workshop titled Mission Hubs: Transforming our Communities. The workshop opened with a discussion about the evolution of mission work. We’ve traditionally considered mission to be one directional, in other words “we” have something that “they” (whoever the “they” is) need, and we deliver it. In the new paradigm, mission is intended instead to be relational, involving bi-directional, mutual giving and receiving.

The presentation cast a new vision for mission, and gave me much to think about.

Two days later while preparing a meal for St. Paul’s Among Friends community meal program, I was granted a picture of what this new sort of partnering might be like. A recent trip to the Greater Boston Food Bank had resulted in an abundance of beets and parsnips, which aren’t exactly the most popular of vegetables. I tried to be creative about their preparation, and came up with what I thought was a brilliant idea: we would cube up the produce along with sweet potatoes, and roast them to develop their inherently sweet nuttiness. It would be a delicious side to the chicken dish I’d planned, and the colors would be gorgeous; purple and deep orange and white.

I applauded myself for my innovative thinking, and set about peeling. And peeling. And peeling. My partner Diane grabbed her own peeler and started to help. We peeled and chopped the vegetables into semi-uniform cubes while the clock ticked down toward the chiming of the dinner bell. Meanwhile, other tasks were not being attended to, and the vegetables really needed to get into the oven in order to be done in time.

My brilliant idea was in fact not so very bright.

It was then that the vision cast by the workshop presenters came to life.

One of the evening’s crew of volunteers was a large-eyed, solemn-faced young man; a High School junior who has worked with Among Friends on and off for a few years. I hadn’t worked with him before, but it quickly became clear that he was a diligent and uncomplaining laborer. He agreeably stepped in to finish chopping parsnips. They were the worst of the three vegetables to cube, being shaped like carrots, but denser. I watched him hacking away at one of the front counters, facing the fellowship hall where our guests gathered.

An Among Friends guest approached the counter, and stood observing the young man as he worked. He wore a dingy white cap and a faded plaid jacket. His face was lined and weathered, his eyes attentive to the boy’s knife work. After watching for 3 or 4 minutes, he said “If you hold the tip of the knife down on the board, it will go a lot easier.” The young man adjusted his technique, saw that it worked, and said “Thanks!” with a note of relief in his voice. The guest’s eyes crinkled as a smile lit up his face. He nodded in satisfaction, then turned away and sat down to wait in the warm hall for the meal to be served.

I’d witnessed a very simple but very profound thing: an interaction between two souls from different generations and different backgrounds. And it sure made me think.

I don’t pretend to know anything about the man. I was not able to get out to the dining room early enough to eat with him. He could be a wealthy retiree who wanted companionship while he dined. He could be a fisherman who struggles during the winter. He could be a homeless alcoholic. He could be an angel in disguise. But what I do know is that he took deep pleasure in passing on his knowledge. It felt good for him to be helpful.

And he was.

As I thought about this man and the other guests who attend Among Friends, I considered what a blessing it would be for more people to have that feeling. I imagined being physically handicapped as some of the guests are, or elderly and alone as are others. I imagined having lost a job which gave me a feeling of purpose, as have some of our guests. And I wondered how often they feel as if they are useful.

I’ll bet that for some, it is not often enough.

I’m not sure what God has in mind for showing me this small vision of the bi-directional nature of real mission. I don’t know how he wants it to be applied to the Among Friends program in the future, if at all. But I’m grateful for the insight into what true mission can mean, sent in the form of a glowing face beneath the frayed rim of a dingy cap.

Suzanne DeWitt, St. Paul’s Newburyport

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