Advent ATM

O’Hare Airport, Chicago, Illinois, November 30.  I needed cash and took the right hand turn towards the BMO Harris ATM.  An older adult woman in a wheelchair with an attendant rested sideways to the ATM, wanting cash.  She had repeated trouble reaching and hitting the right suggestions on the screen.  Her assistant had his back turned, protecting her privacy.  When I arrived she was retrieving her first card due to an inaccurate pin number.  She had taken nearly three minutes to get to this point; impatience was showing around my edges.

She drew out a second credit card.  She repeated the routine.  I thought:  why don’t I step up to the ATM, interrupt them, handle my business, and move on to my gate, which by the way didn’t board for over an hour?  Her second card was rejected to her increasing despair.  She hung her head in frustration, sadness, and anxiety.  Over my shoulder a young couple rolled their eyes  in unison, indicating they thought this old lady was an intolerable pain.  They apparently didn’t need cash so desperately and moved on.  Not me.  I needed cash and this was the last ATM of my bank before the gate.

Frustration and impatience increased as she reached for a third card; painfully reached, her anxiety rising together with her confusion.  Her escort and I both now began to coach her in hopes that this time the card would work.  She lowered her requested amount from $40 to $20.  The screen noted she had exceeded her available credit.  She was crushed.  The young man’s face empathetically frowned.  I was frustrated.  Then the young man said quietly, yet loud enough for all to hear, “Don’t worry!  You don’t have to give me anything.  Really.  This is my job!”  All she wanted to do was give thanks to this young man for helping her through the airport from car to gate.  When the screen showed no funds her head drooped, her hands went to her lap, and a profound sadness enveloped her face.  They left the ATM and headed towards her gate.

Realizing my own shortsightedness, I quickly inserted my card, took my money, and headed to find them.  This shouldn’t be so hard, I thought, there aren’t that many people in wheelchairs. The hallway reached out with people shoulder to shoulder.  Looking left a twosome came into sight and I headed their way.  After weaving and dodging for 100 yards, there they were!  He was talking kindly to her as he pulled her over to wait.  I knelt down next to her;  “You want to help this young man for his kindness.  I saw you at the ATM.  Here’s some money for you to give him.”  I handed her $20.  “Oh, thank you honey!  You don’t know how much this means to me.”  “And to me as well!”  I thought: you’ll never know.  “Merry Christmas!”  With a smile on her face and a befuddled look on the young man’s, I turned towards my gate grateful, once again, for Advent and Jesus’ unusual and beautiful ways of showing up.

Happy Advent.

The Rev. Alvin Johnson is Canon for Congregational Vitality and Innovation for the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania. 

Blessing and Hope

On August 11 I received a call from Cindy Dougan at the Diocesan Center concerning an unfortunate situation and our possibly assisting St. Stephen’s in Olean, NY (which is on the border of Pennsylvania, north of Bradford). Cindy received a phone call from The Rev. Kim Rossi, rector of St. Stephen’s, requesting assistance. I called to see if I could help with the situation. A person from Olean had a friend in Bradford whose daughter had died unexpectedly at Hamot Hospital in Erie and didn’t have enough funds to bring her daughter’s body back to Bradford. Kim told me that her Alms Fund was almost gone and hoped I could help. I told her I would. I contacted the mother and assured her that we would get the remaining funds to the funeral director so her daughter could come home. In conversation with the mother, Sandy, I inquired if she was going to have a service and she said not at this time.

Just when we think we have been blessed with more then we can imagine, God does what God does best, and blesses us with more. This blessing I received was not a monetary blessing but a spiritual and hope blessing. A few days later, I was asked if I would celebrate a Memorial service for Bobbie Jo Groff. I did not personally know Bobbie Jo. I only recognized who she was by Ascension, Bradford’s secretary, Chris Schaffer’s, description and knowing that Bobbie Jo came to our Thursday lunches and Second Harvest Food Bank. She was confined to a wheelchair. I only mention this for the following reason: there are those who have worked hard or who have been blessed with financial security that sometimes feel sorry for or may even look down upon people with disabilities or who are going through low economic hardship. In reality, they don’t care what anyone thinks, what they want is to be accepted just as they are. God does just that.

In preparing for the service, I asked Bobbie Jo’s mother what was she like. Her mother told me she loved to dance, she loved her family, she loved to laugh, she loved her friends, and she loved to fish. For those reasons, I knew I would have liked Bobbie Jo.
Then I asked how many people did she expect to be in attendance at the service so we could print enough bulletins. She estimated 25 to 35 so Chris printed 50.

As it got closer to the beginning of the service I was operating the handicap elevator, so I wasn’t paying much attention to how many people were coming in. When Janet Carr, a member of Ascension, and I walked into the sanctuary we were surprised by a full church – one hundred plus with some standing. This was the blessing and the hope all in one package. To see a church full of love and compassion for someone who was full of and shared her LOVE and COMPASSION.

Thank you God for the blessing and hope in humanity that I experienced on August 17 at Bobbie Jo’s celebration of new life.

The Ven. Gail Winslow is the archdeacon of the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania and serves at Church of the Ascension, Bradford.

Giving Thanks – St. James’ Community Soup Kitchen

img_1709-478x640If you drive through Titusville on a Tuesday morning just before lunch time, you may notice how busy the corner of Main Street and Franklin Avenue is compared to the rest of town. Cars line the edge of the roadway, and people walking singly or in groups of three or four make their way down the sidewalk towards the doors of the St. James Parish Hall. Outside the hall a white sign proclaims “St. James Community Soup Kitchen Today 12 – 1 pm. All are Welcome!”

All are indeed welcome to this particularly busy ministry of St. James, as I came to find out. I spoke with Eda Scales and Noni Stanford, two of the soup kitchen coordinators, last Tuesday as they were preparing to serve over 200 people for the annual Thanksgiving dinner. Even though I arrived at 11 am, well before the usual serving hour, most of the tables in the hall were already full of people chatting and having steaming cups of coffee, enjoying each other’s company and relaxing before the beginning of the meal. Volunteers zipped back and forth, topping up glasses and making last minute preparations, but everyone I passed had enough time to smile and say hello as they went about the business of Thanksgiving dinner.
The food program at St. James has been running continuously since 2001, serving hot meals once a week to anyone who drops in. The first few dinners had perhaps a dozen people in attendance, but numbers have increased steadily to the point that on any given Tuesday there are img_1706-640x478at least a hundred people in and out of St. James’ hall, sharing a meal and fellowship (and double that for the Thanksgiving celebration).  Volunteer participation is both ecumenical and community-oriented: at least four churches in the area send helpers to aid the St. James’ crew, and they are often joined by women from the St. James House – a shelter program run by the local YWCA that is housed in the old church rectory. On the few occasions when Canon Martha Ishman is unable to attend dinners, Pastor Terry Brown of the Methodist church in Enterprise gives the blessing before the meal.

The program was given a jumpstart in its early days with a grant from the Diocese, but between donations from parishioners and support from local groups and businesses like Northwest Hardwoods, the VFW, United Way, and a partnership with the Second Harvest Food Bank, the soup kitchen ministry is now self-sufficient and able to provide hot meals and groceries for people in and around the Titusville area. It is also one of the only regularly scheduled soup kitchens in the area that doesn’t charge a fee for the meal. Eda pointed out to me that not only does the program meet financial, social, and spiritual needs for attendees in general, it is particularly valuable to people with special circumstances: the working poor, people on fixed incomes or Social Security, and others who may not qualify for assistance programs, but still find themselves in need. There are no qualifiers to participate in the food ministry, and everything is on the honor system – if someone says they have a need, they may receive.

The program also encompasses the God’s Abundance Cupboard food pantry, which began on an emergency basis whenever the church was open, and has since grown so that there are now twice-monthly scheduled pickup days where families can come and get a bag of groceries including fruit, cereal, soup, vegetables, and (thanks to a grant from Giant Eagle) two packages of frozen meat. The food pantry now gives out approximately 70 bags of groceries each pickup day.
The financial benefit of the meals and grocery donations is readily evident when you see the number of people who participate in the program. As I walked around the tables and chatted with people the social and spiritual benefits made themselves known. For many of the attendees, the soup kitchen is about much more than a hot meal – it’s an important social space, and a church outside of church. From Noni: img_1689-599x640“If you miss a week or something, they ask ‘where were you last week?’ They feel like this is their church, even if they don’t all come on Sundays.” It’s obvious that the people visiting last Tuesday felt at home. Chatter passed back and forth between people and tables with a familiarity that only comes from regular interaction. I sat down near the kitchen to chat with one young woman and her 14-month old daughter, and she mentioned that she was there because her parents came regularly. Her father was seated further down the table, and he introduced me to his wife, one of his cousins, and another relative (who was one of the volunteers, and not able to sit with them as he was working). He said how much they appreciate the church, and his wife jumped in to tell me a story about how one of the previous priests, after seeing that she had been crying at one of the meals, was able to get them help that saved them from being evicted from their home. Both volunteers and people sitting at tables stopped me as I walked around and asked if I needed a seat or a plate, and there wasn’t a single table where someone didn’t have a story or a joke to share (or a groan about the upcoming snow in the weather forecast). As Eda had said while we talked, “you see the face of God in everyone around the tables.” If the smiles on the faces of the volunteers are any indication, they receive as much joy in giving as the attendees do in receiving.

Noni walked by with a large tray filled with slices of pumpkin pie, signaling an end to the first wave of dining, and I waved goodbye and worked my way back through the tables towards the exit. Knots of people who had finished eating or were waiting for spaces to open up at the tables stood in the entry hall and outside on the sidewalk, and several folks wished me a happy holiday as I zipped up my jacket and headed down the street.

I walked out the doors of the hall that day far more uplifted in spirit than I had been prior to arriving. The weather may be getting colder and the days shorter, but God’s presence in this ministry will continue warming hearts throughout western PA’s people for hopefully many years to come.

Megin Sewak, Communications Specialist for the Diocese of Northwestern PA

Valentines and the Inexpressible Love of God

As I write this, Love is on my mind. Not some specific someone love – although that would be nice – but Love as an ideal and as a reality. I guess the near proximity of Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday this year got this train of thought going. And when thinking about love I can’t help being a little frustrated by how pedesheart-534793_1280trian my understanding of the concept frequently is. The fault lies in the fact that our English language is so imprecise; we use the same word “love” to refer to the pleasurable/enjoyable to the sentimental/romantic to the awesome divine. I can actually say in the same conversation that I love chocolate, I love my children and that God loves me.

Churchy-types have long resorted to the Greek language to try to clarify things. C.S. Lewis wrote a wonderful book called The Four Loves where he explores the different types of love expressed in that language. So we have storge for affectionate love, philia for brotherly love or the love of friends, eros for romantic love and agape for unconditional or Godly love. Of course Lewis also explores how these types of loves are expressed in wholesome and unwholesome ways and spends time differentiating between love based on need, love offered as gift and love resulting from appreciation.

For me, this questions of understanding love matters because it is so central to our understanding of both God and what it means to be a Christian. St. John goes so far as to say in his first letter that “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8)

Taking a cue from Mr. Lewis we need to be deliberately aware that our ability to love is a reflection of God’s love, is in fact, part of the way that we are created in God’s image. We accept that we cannot love with the perfection of agape – that is God’s love – but we know that we are called to strive toward that. When we love one another in familial, friendly or romantic ways, we are to be always seeking to let that love show glimmers of the higher, truer love that is known in God.

So as we enjoy the hearts and flowers of Valentine’s Day and the many types of human love we commemorate on that day, let us also be mindful of the inexpressible love that God has for us as shown to us in Christ. That love tells us that while we were yet separated from God, strangers as it were, Christ died for us.

As this month unfolds, may we be given grace to see the ash crosses we are marked with to begin our Lenten journey as God’s Valentine to us, his beloved.

The Rev. Stacey Fussell, Rector of Church of the Ascension in Bradford