A Night to Remember

The Gospel writer John says that Jesus began and ended his earthly ministry with meals. From water turned to wine at a wedding feast, to fish grilled over a fire by the lake, and all in between, Jesus revealed himself over meals.

And so maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that when we sit down to a meal in his name, Jesus still reveals himself. It happened here this week when 150 guests sat down to a four-course meal served to them on fine china, on tables covered with white tablecloths and decorated with candles and fresh flowers.

This was a first for many, who often go to bed hungry, if they have a bed at all.

The meal was the dream of the late Ryan Cenk, who passed away two years ago at age 22. Ryan was a regular volunteer at the Tuesday night meals hosted by our friends at Outreached Arms. Ryan had battled brain cancer beginning when he was 10 months old. The disease affected his growth and had made it hard for him to see and walk. But he had the advantage of being great in Spirit. He became an Eagle Scout, an advocate for the physically challenged, and a volunteer for many causes that mattered to him.

Ryan’s dad, Bill, had kept the dream of “Ryan’s Night to Remember” alive. Atria’s Restaurant group catered the entire gourmet affair at no cost. A whole team of Atria’s cooks and servers donated their time. Another crew of volunteers, including First Church elders and deacons, worked tirelessly too. For four hours, the Williams’ family kept the dishwasher going. 

So it was indeed a night to remember; to remember a brave young man who revealed Jesus to the world through his life; to remember how Jesus revealed himself over a meal in a grand old church; and even to remember how Jesus revealed himself through a family sweating together around a dishwasher.

When Jesus shows up

Through our partnership with a wonderful non-profit called Outreached Arms, over 6,000 meals will be served in our church this year. This represents an investment of over 8,000 volunteer hours. Even more significant are the friendships that are being made, the lives that are being touched, and the Gospel that is being shared. Best of all, when meals are shared in his name, Jesus shows up.

On March 20, I noticed three young ladies, Kelsey, Kiana, and Maddie, about the ages of my own granddaughters, enjoying a meal with our guest Dalas. I learned that Kelsey and Maddie are sisters who attend Saints John and Paul Roman Catholic Church north of Pittsburgh, a strong supporter of Outreached Arms. Their friend Kiana came to Outreached Arms with them to help serve. Kiana asked Dalas, “Tell us a story of what it was like growing up in Beaver Falls.” Dalas thought for a moment and said, “I didn’t have a lot of friends, so I used to go out in the woods and enjoy nature. I sometimes did things I shouldn’t have. But I loved the outdoors, and that is where I first met the Lord.”

Then, for the next several minutes, Dalas told the girls how much Jesus loves them, and how Jesus wants to bless them and will always be there for them. Dalas later told me, “I never told that story before. I think the Spirit must have gotten hold of me.”

Yes, Dallas, yes indeed.

Caffeine and the Spirit

One morning this week, Pastor Dan and I had just left the meeting of the Clean and Safe Committee. It’s the working group of civic leaders, business owners, police, and civil servants who try to keep downtown “clean and safe.” Dan and I were pleased that our Tuesday night meals for the homeless, with our friends at Outreached Arms, were part of the discussion. This ministry lifts people up while helping address needs for health and safety.

I started to head straight back to the church, but Dan turned right, wanting to get coffee first. Standing next to the coffee shop, waiting for a bus, was a lady who yelled when she saw me: “It’s the pastor of First Presbyterian Church!”

Carla was beaming. She reminded me that my wife and I had helped her one Sunday after church to connect her with the services she needed. Now she was working, had her own place, and was enrolled in school. She said we had helped her when she was new in town and didn’t know where to turn.

Dan prayed, we all hugged, and we went on our way after telling Carla that her joy had made our day.

Dan drinks a lot of coffee, so you could say it was his need for caffeine that caused us to take the longer route back to the church. But I doubt it. It was the Spirit. It was the Spirit who allowed Jana and me to help Carla months before. It was the Spirit who filled her with joy. It was the Spirit who brought the tears that morning on the sidewalk.

Outreached Arms

The meal we serve in our church each Tuesday with our partners from Outreached Arms had been over for a while, and most of the hundred or so guests had left. Johnny was talking to volunteers, and carefully packing and re-packing his backpack, reluctant to leave. Allison, one of the regular volunteers came over to my wife to say that Johnny needed gloves. Sharon, founder of Outreached Arms, found a pair of cotton work gloves. Johnny really needed winter gloves, so Allison volunteered to bring Johnny a new pair the next week.

Johnny had been a regular at these meals, but the following week he was nowhere to be seen. Later we found out why. The night after eating with us, Johnny had been shot multiple times and died on the steps in the Spring Garden neighborhood on the North Side. Surveillance video showed two men walking with Johnny, then running away from the scene

Part of what makes life on the street so hard is the pecking order where the strong lord it over the weak. Johnny was small and thin, an obvious target.

Each week at these meals I see hurting people, many living on the street, sit up a little straighter and smile a little brighter. For an hour or so they get treated with dignity, and get to enjoy a hot meal in a safe place. One pastor visiting this week for the first time told me he was amazed at how many of our guests and volunteers knew each other by name.

This week Allison posted a selfie on her Facebook page that she took with Johnny at the Outreached Arms Christmas Party. “I considered it an honor to have served you,” she wrote.

Thank God for people like Allison.