The previous day, parishioners fasted as an act of faith and sacrifice for our guests. An hour before the doors opened, we then prayed over the tables and chairs. We prayed that each person would experience the welcome and love of Christ.
A team of people printed flyers and personally delivered them everywhere, from the local food pantry to the neediest neighborhoods and beyond. High school students came early to set up tables, decorate the gym, and lay out table cloths. Cooks came in Tuesday morning to begin preparing the food. One woman made home made chicken and noodles from scratch. Someone brought in a nice sound system for dinner music (Handel's Messiah) and a microphone for beautiful after-dinner testimonies by Colin, Tom, and Rose, representing the spectrum of generations. We all proudly wore our new black t-shirts with the new parish logo.
We served over one hundred people. We were ready for so many more! At first we felt a bit disappointed that the gym was not packed. But as we looked around and saw the joy of our guests, and experienced the wonderful comaraderie of our love in action, we simply had to rejoice and marvel at God's goodness.
The lower-than-expected attendance had one advantage. The wedding feast parable speaks of the King's disappointment when his banquet is not filled with guests. He then urges the servants to go out to the highways and byways, inviting everyone! To me, it seemed that in putting in so much hard work and loving preparation to honor and feed our neighbors, we were sharing the Father's heart, longing to fill the banquet.
In this regard, the event was symbolic of the kind of parish we are striving to be. I reminded the parishioners that this is what God experiences every Sunday, when his feast of love goes unheeded by so many. If we are to be a missional parish, then we need to get used to this continual, aching desire to reach more people and bring them to the banquet. We learned that the greater our personal investment in the feast, the greater our desire to go out and bring in guests!
My Favorite Moment
My favorite moment came when I met a man I'll call Pete. He was sitting at a corner table and was eating alone. I came over and we started to chat. He was jolly and gracious. He told me he felt very welcomed and honored when he walked in, as our smiling greeters took his coat and warmly led him to the food line. He told me how he got lost trying to find our place, and how heard of the event through an announcement in the local paper, which he reads faithfully, cover-to-cover, each day.
Pete told me how he was living in his car, and how grateful he was to have the shelter it offered. He is in his sixties and suffers from diabetes and, recently, onset of dementia and Alzheimer's. Due first to excessive and painful swelling in his legs, then to forgetfulness and mental lapses, he has lost several jobs. He is divorced and has little contact with is ex-wife and children. Yet, for all that, his attitude was upbeat and grateful. He said he may eventually end up staying at the local homeless shelter, but is holding off because he would rather be free than submit to the curfews and restrictions there.
After I prayed with Pete and blessed him, I had an idea. Why not ask Pete to bless me?
Pete immediately accepted my request, becoming solemn and serious. We closed our eyes and he placed his hands on mine. I was amazed at the feeling of deep warmth and security given by those large, rough, gentle hands. He said something like:
"Dear Lord and Father, I praise you and bless you for this nice pastor and the people of this wonderful parish. From the moment I came in here tonight, I felt your love and your comfort. This is a place of hope and goodness. I wish you would help this pastor and this parish to spread your love and your hope to everyone in this community. I know you want everyone to see what a wonderful place this is, and that they can come here and feel your love."
Just recalling it brings a tear to my eye. I gave Pete the little card with our parish information on it, and he promised to come to Mass this Sunday. He wants more of what he experienced. He sees that these people are his friends. I know he is right!
St Ambrose is committed to being a Jesus-centered, other-centered parish that exists for the sake of the neighborhood and the community. Our hope is to leave a huge "Kingdom footprint" witnessing to the awesome saving love of Jesus for every person. As pastor of this wonderful parish, I can only say that, after last night, I eagerly anticipate seeing the amazing ways this is going to come true! God is so present and alive in his people here. I know he takes great delight in us, his children, as we strive to make His Kingdom come on earth...as it is in heaven!