Every once in a while, I hear people talk about the fabric of time and space. What happens if that fabric shrinks in the wash?
I think about time travel sometimes. Hey, I grew up reading Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. I watched a lot of Star Trek. Time travel is part of my culture. But most cultures throughout history had no real concept of time travel. I mean, you couldn't just show up in Ancient Mesopotamia or Medieval Japan and say, "Hello there. I'm traveling through time. Can you direct me to the nearest gift shop?"
Most people are very suspicious when it comes to strangers. Like, I'm guessing that you couldn't just appear out of nowhere and expect Genghis Khan to invite you into his yurt for a mug of fermented horse milk. If you or I traveled back in time, we would be dressed all wrong. We would speak gibberish. We would be taken for lunatics or evil spirits or worse. Most likely, we would be burned at the stake.
So when I think about time travel, I usually think about what I would need to do in order to survive. Under most conditions, I think my best option is simply to look well-fed. I don't really have the hands of a laborer. I even shave and use soap on a regular basis. By these quirks of appearance and hygiene, people might assume I am a person of noble birth. If my new neighbors think I am of royal blood, then maybe they'll keep me alive until they can figure out how to ransom me back to my family. And that's it. That's the thread by which my life hangs. Maybe I'll luck out and be held for ransom.
If I went back in time to Colonial America or to 17th Century England, then I would have more hope. Of course, I'd still have to worry about some overzealous puritan burning me the stake. But at least I could look for a Quaker meeting somewhere. And that would make all the difference in the world. If I found a bunch of Quakers, I think I'd be okay.
To be sure, those historical Friends would find me strange. No matter how diligent I was to say thee and thou, something about my speech would seem odd to them. And my dress would seem outlandish. I would probably laugh at all the wrong times. I would stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. Despite our differences, I am confident that I would feel a sense of kinship with those bygone Quakers. We have a shared culture of Robert Barclay and Margaret Fell and silent meeting. We share the values of peace and simplicity. Quakers – even 17th Century Quakers – are my spiritual family.
If I found myself in the wrong century, I would look for a Quaker meeting. Then I would volunteer to light the fire in wintertime or to unbolt the windows in summer. I would do whatever needs doing. By my actions, I would demonstrate my commitment to the meeting. Ultimately, regardless of my many peculiarities, I think those Friends would accept me as one of their own. And if I was part of a community, then I think I could survive.
Community is the key.
* * *
Our government has given a label to people who feel uncertain about whether or not they will get enough to eat. These people are called "food insecure." People who are food insecure don't necessarily suffer from chronic hunger. But they live very close to the edge. And they are worried about what will happen to them. They are one step away from plunging over the cliff. Not that long ago, Oregon led the nation in food insecurity.
Oregon is not a poor state. Our per capita income is pretty close to the national average. Yet our neighbors are very worried about getting enough to eat. Don't you wonder why? Why is someone in Oregon more likely to worry about food than someone in West Virginia? The Oregon Center for Public Policy decided to figure this out. They went digging through census data, hoping to find an answer.
As it turns out, their answer has a lot to do with community.
In Oregon, a relatively high percentage of the population reported moving in the last year. In West Virginia, people are more likely to live near their families. People are more likely to live in the community where they grew up. In West Virginia, more people can fall back on the bonds of community. By contrast, our neighbors don't have a network of relationships to sustain them.
This is only part of the answer, but I think it is an important part: in Oregon, fewer people have the safety net of a community.
* * *
From time to time, someone calls the meeting house and asks for money. People want help with their phone bill. People want help with medical bills. People call me from their hotel room and ask if I can pay for the next night's lodging.
About one third of the time, the person who calls is belligerent. I try not to take it personally. I figure that some people are mad at life. I just happen to be on the other end of the line.
I often ask the caller where he or she is from. I do this because Neighborhood House is a good resource for people who live in SW Portland. But people call from east Multnomah County and Beaverton and every place in between.
People call us simply because we are in the Yellow Pages.
Thanks to our Hunger Group, I can offer every person who calls a free bag of groceries. If someone calls to get help with their heating bill, I can say, "I'm sorry, I can't help you with that. But I can give you a bag of groceries. Would that help?" Some people agree to the groceries. Some people aren't interested.
I have delivered bags of food downtown. I've been to all those run-down hotels on Barbur Boulevard. I've been to some nice places, too. When I give them the food, some people say thank you. Some people are too busy talking on the phone to say anything to me. They lift the bag of groceries from my hands, while they repeat their story to another pastor or church secretary. Some people look sick. Some people look drunk.
It occurs to me that some of these people who call for help might be time travelers. They don't seem to know the rules for living in this age. They don't know how to speak the vernacular that we all take for granted. So maybe they are time travelers.
Our society doesn't burn them at the stake any longer. But neither can we expect the general culture to offer much help.
* * *
Our meeting is very committed to the cause of hunger. We collect food. We serve dinners. We pass out the bagels. Our Hunger Group takes action to feed hungry people, and they do a great job.
But God has given us a resource that may be more scarce than food. Perhaps we should think about sharing that, too. God has built a community here. God has given us one another. Because of the love we share, people in this community have made their cars available. People have made their homes available. People have invested time to one another. People have written checks and dropped them into envelopes. We pray for one another.
If Tim and Doreen fell on hard times, we would never say, "Well, you guys can always eat at Potluck in the Park." If Rich and April hit the skids, we would never say, "Well, you can always try to get a bed at Transition Projects."
Being in this community is a safety net that keeps us all a little further from that jagged edge of hunger.
* * *
Someone asked Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus replied with a story, so this man could find the answer his own question. And the answer is this: "Your neighbor is the person who needs your help." Maybe the point strikes closer to home if we hear Jesus say, "Your community is whoever needs your help."
Community is a gift. What we have is a gift. Maybe it is enough that we give the gift of community to one another. Maybe we need to share it more broadly. How is the Spirit speaking to you on this matter?
When people call the meeting house, looking for help, what do you think I should say on our behalf? Should I tell them, "We can give you a bag of groceries. And we can give you more than this. Come and be part of our community. Come and find a home among us. We will be your brothers and sisters."
If I extend this sort of invitation, do you think we can deliver on the offer? Is there anything we would have to change about ourselves to make people feel truly welcome? Is there anything we have to give up?
* * *
Over the weekend, I read a book called, "What Every Church Member Should Know about Poverty." This book identifies a culture of poverty as distinct from a middle class culture or a culture of wealth. This is not about income level. This is about culture. Culturally, people who are accustomed to poverty have a different outlook. They have made different priorities. They think differently about money and authority and education and displays of emotion and family and the list goes on.
Yes, it is a sweeping generalization to think all poor people share the same culture. But the point is that we often make a worse generalization. When church people reach out to those in poverty, we often assume that everyone is just like us. We are blind to the divides of culture, so we set up cultural barriers that are invisible to us, but obvious marks of exclusion to others.
Community is a resource. So how can we offer our community as gift for those who need it most? Without diminishing our efforts to feed those who are hungry now, is there a way we can help people avoid hunger in the first place?