When we first talked about opening St Aidan’s Kitchen, I was really determined that the session would end with a mass. For me, it made no sense to just feed the hungry unless we were making those holy connections and sharing the truths that we, as a church, were feeding others because we had been fed in the holy meal of the eucharist. I wanted to clearly demonstrate that the food served at the altar in each mass was served for a purpose; we were fed to give us energy to go and feed others. And, just as everyone was welcome to come to St Aidan’s Kitchen, so everyone was welcome at God’s Table. Ending with a mass was a non-negotiable for me so, right from the first week, we finished up with a simple mass and everyone was invited to stay.
We did that for the first two years of The Kitchen. We saw amazing things there – people asked to be baptised, we had a confirmation service during one of the masses and seven people were confirmed, and often we had 20 or more people attend. Over time the numbers dwindled, until we were down to 6 or 7 people, all of whom were church members who had received their mass already that day, or the evening before, but hung around to support me. We made the decision to stop celebrating mass at the end of the session and, once a service is stopped, it’s really hard to start it back up again. Stopping that mass is still a decision I really regret, deeply. What might God have done with it if I had continued to keep showing up (inexplicably nervous, every time) – I am really sorry that I didn’t get to find out…
When I look back, all my most precious memories of our time at the Kitchen (and some of the worst ones!) are about encounters with individuals; not huge fundraising successes or front-page news stuff (although those came too), but just a simple interaction, one-to-one, like with Samantha who I wrote about yesterday. Those encounters shaped me just as much as I hope they shaped our guests and friends. They taught me something new, every time – big lessons, little lessons, just a reminder, profound truths, and everything in between. And one of the most amazing teachers was a young man who I think only came once and who taught me about grace, beyond anything I had ever experienced before.
To my shame, I can’t remember his name, but I will call him Chris.
Chris came to us one Thursday, about a year in. It was at a time (one of the many) when there was a bad batch of tablets going around and people were getting really poorly off them. Chris came in and was in a bad way. I can still picture where he slumped in church. He had somehow got himself a bowl of chilli and was now keeled over, leaning into his chilli, eyes closed or rolling back, half asleep, half comatose, threatening every few minutes to pour chilli over the pews.
As always, I spent the morning wandering around, talking to folk, and every time I walked past Chris I would ask if he was ok, try to shake him awake a bit, check his chilli and the state of the pew, and see if he was stirring at all. He wasn’t. The only change in him was unseen – between checks a bit more chilli had found its way into his beard or down his front. It was a sad sight, and he was not with us at all.
The thing about ending with the mass served another useful purpose too – when we announced it was about to begin, many of the guests would get up and leave. I’m sure they would’ve stayed there all day and all night if there hadn’t been a cut-off point. That day was no different. As people left, still Chris didn’t stir, not a bit. I went over and woke him up and said I was about to say mass, and did he want to stay and move closer to the front. He looked at me, mumbled, and was gone again. I left him where he was.
I lit the thurible, so incense was burning; it was a great mix of aromas of food, poverty and worship filling the air – I’ll never forget that smell. I put my robes on, to show something different, altogether important, was happening and I began to say mass. I never dumbed the service down – it was a simple mass, with a couple of sung refrains, leaving nothing out, and everyone was invited to come and receive.
I ducked down behind the altar, just before the invitation to take communion, and prayed my own private prayer and then I stood up to begin to extend God’s welcome; ‘come to this table, not because you must but because you may…’ I would say each time. ‘Come not because you are strong but because you are weak’, I would continue. But as I stood so I saw Chris, and he was walking down the main aisle, right towards me. Stumbling a bit, but very determined.
He reached the altar rail, and he didn’t stop. He kept right on going, up the chancel steps, right up to the altar, until he was leaning across and looking me right in the eyes. And he stood there, kind of awkwardly, but almost defiant. And he stretched out his hands and I said to him ‘do you want the body of Christ?’ and he said ‘yes’. He said, ‘I want to come back to God and I don’t know how’. And I gave him the very body of Jesus and told him he could come here and that he was welcome. Because he was, because he is, and God is so amazingly gracious that sometimes we get to see that in new and exciting and outrageous ways.
And, just as I had wanted to connect those dots between feeding at The Kitchen and feeding at the altar, so, in that moment, our gracious God connected a few more for me…
We have received abundantly and freely, and so abundantly and freely we must give. We are loved by God, in order that we might share that love with others. We have received a welcome at God’s table, unconditionally, in order that we might always unconditionally welcome others. Over and over again. None of this is ours. Not to keep anyway. The church is not a vessel of God’s gifts, She is a channel. Everything that is poured into us and into our worshipping communities, is ours to have, hold, use, and then give out again. Over and over and over again. Never to keep, always to pass on.
And somehow, that day, Chris saw that in ways I hadn’t. He encountered something of God’s feeding, and welcome and forgiveness and love. And he knew he could come. He knew he could approach the Lord’s table, boldly. Step right up and hold out his hands, because he wanted to come back and he didn’t know how, but he knew this was a good place to start.
Chris taught me about the smashing of barriers, the indescribable pull of the mass, the beauty of broken bread offered, the irresistible draw of Christ, and the essential nature of coming just as we are – chilli in our beards, grime on our anoraks, stink in our hair, drugs in our system – and knowing God meets us there in outrageous joy.
I never saw Chris again, maybe I didn’t need to, but I remember him often. Today, I pray his holy lessons might teach you too – so come to the altar, not because you must but because you may. Come because you love the Lord a little and would like to love him more. Come because God loves you and gives Godself for you. Come and meet the Risen Christ because together (you, me, Chris, all the others we meet on the way), together we are Christ’s body. Amen.