Ever since May of 2016, my husband Kenny and I have been pastoring a little church that meets in a coffee shop. We call it Brown Bag Sunday, and it’s made up of all sorts of people. Roughly 70 percent of them are homeless. Few things have brought me as much joy as this little gathering. We tell people to come as they are, and they do. We tell them they don’t even have to be sober to show up as long as they “behave.” Is that bad? Is that too permissive? I don’t think so. What do you do when you’re tormented by alcoholism or drug addiction but you also know that you need God? You come to Brown Bag Sunday.
Don’t misunderstand me. Not everyone who attends Brown Bag Sunday is homeless, or an addict, or an alcoholic. BBS has its share of hard-working, God-fearing congregants, some of whom are clean as freshly fallen snow (and others of whom are also homeless or addicted. You can’t be saved and addicted at the same time, you say? Puuulleeeeeeesee). Anyway, we’re a motley bunch of ragamuffins— to varying degrees flawed, homeless, employed, unemployed, addicted, straight, gay, victorious, depressed, hungry, full, fat, thin, sober, drunk, and so on. You get the picture.
I do know that we have a pretty high percentage of folks who would never walk into the typical church.
I love the local church. I have such respect for the local church! But one day, years ago, I brought some friends (a married couple) with me to church on Sunday. They didn’t smell very good, and their clothes were ragged. As soon as we walked into the building, one of the deacons offered the husband a clean jacket to put on. My friends were utterly humiliated, and I was appalled. They’d been deemed “not good enough” to be in that building, to be part of the Body of Christ. They were both Christians, both hungry for God, and both deserving of a little hospitality.
But their clothes weren’t fancy enough.
I never forgot that incident.
A handful of years later, around 2002, I was finally part of a church that loved the homeless. One morning, a certain homeless man named Paul walked into the building during the Sunday service and grabbed one of the big cornbread muffins that someone had laid out for anyone who needed a snack. As my pastor preached, Paul stood in the middle of the aisle and rubbed his thumb back and forth across that muffin, watching the crumbs fall to the floor. He didn’t stop till he’d destroyed the whole muffin. And what did the rest of us do? Nothing. We all knew that Paul just did this sort of thing. It was no big deal. Sometimes he talked to himself, but he was never belligerent. If he wanted to butcher a muffin, no one minded. If he talked to himself a little, fine.
As I watched Paul and the rest of my church family, I thought, This is church. This is IT. I knew I’d never again settle for being part of a congregation that didn’t accept the Pauls of this world. Never again would I be satisfied to call myself part of a so-called church that had no room for the mentally unstable, the addicted, the homeless, the “least of these.”
The fact that God is allowing Kenny and me to love, teach, and feed fifty people, some of them just like Paul, is an honor I don’t deserve.