It was some time in the early 1970s – our records don’t indicate exactly when, but anecdotally it was some time around 1970 – that we started getting a number of calls at the church from people in need of material help to get through the week. Fitz Legerton, the pastor, reached out to Deloris Wallis and the Presbyterian Women, to figure out a solution. The answer was fairly straightforward: Deloris’ husband Julius would fill his pick up truck with food, and the two of them would drive over to whomever had called and deliver a couple of bags of groceries.
Word spread quickly, and the demand became so great, that we found a home for the Food Pantry right here at the church. More and more members and volunteers got involved, and for almost forty years, Oglethorpe Presbyterian distributed food three days a week. Deloris Wallis remained at the center of those volunteers with Julius by her side.
It was not long after I arrived that Deloris became ill – quite ill – and was no longer able to be involved. Julius carried the load by himself for a while, until he realized he was now in his 80’s and it was simply too much. It was about that time that the economy tanked, and we found demand for the Food Pantry growing exponentially. Julius stayed involved, but it took six people to do what he had once done solo.
It was not long after Deloris died that we started hearing that our neighbors at St. Martin’s were looking for a new location for their Budget Helper’s Shop, with a vision to housing their Rent and Utilities Assistance program there in the future. They approached us about the possibility of moving our Food Pantry in as well. We held a couple of volunteer meetings to discuss the possibility. Julius and I met for lunch at Waffle House, and he let me know he would support the move.
And so, in October of 2010, we moved into the newly christened Suthers’ Center in Chamblee. A simple marker hangs there, honoring Deloris and Julius Wallis. And at the bottom is Scripture from this morning’s New Testament lesson: “…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…”
Matthew 25 comes toward the end of the gospel, between the parade into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and the Last Supper in the upper room the night of Jesus’ betrayal. Jesus sits with the disciples on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem, and he gives them an extended farewell speech of sorts. And right at the tail end, Jesus lifts up the moral lesson we read this morning. It is as straightforward a teaching as you will find from Jesus: when someone is in need, the faithful thing to do is meet that need. Are they hungry? Give them food. Are they naked? Give them clothes. Are they alone? Befriend them. It couldn’t be simpler, could it? And here’s the thing: when we do that, we are not just serving a fellow human being, a fellow child of God created in the image of God. When we do that, it is as though we are doing it to Jesus himself!
How does that sit with you? Does that make it easier? Or does it come across as naïve? I don’t know about you, but I somehow automatically go to that place that begins to question: How do we know they really need it? What if they’re just gaming the system? Elsewhere, Jesus tells us to test things, to be both “as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.” But here, there’s no equivocating, systematizing, scrutinizing. If someone is hungry, you give them something to eat. And in doing so, you take part in building God’s kingdom, in creating that poetic, beautiful new heaven and earth of Isaiah’s vision, where mourning will be a thing of the past, where people will work and see the fruits of their own labors, where even the mortal enemies of the animal kingdom are spending time together in perfect harmony. It’s the stuff of fantasy, really, hard to imagine; and even harder to live into. And yet, that’s exactly what we are called to do.
Living into new realities always takes work. And it has taken a while for the Food Pantry to find its bearing in its new location. Soon after the move, Julius died, leaving behind this legacy of his and Deloris. We have lost other volunteers due to a variety of circumstances, and gained others. The food demand has, once again, increased exponentially, and there have been days when the volunteers have had to stay later than expected to meet that demand as much as possible. And I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that we can still use some extra hands to make light work. Just see me or Linda Jones after worship if you are interested in finding out more.
That all said, what moving to the Suthers’ Center has meant is access to new resources. By moving out of our church, we have broken the old spell that you needed to be a member of Oglethorpe to be involved, and so members of many other churches are now involved. We now get food from the amazing Atlanta Food Bank, which has meant our budget stretches even further than it once did. And even though our Bargain Shop sales remain the backbone of our financial support, other churches – especially St. Martin’s – have extended our means. To give you an idea of what this does, last month we gave out eight tons of groceries to feed more than a thousand people, including almost five hundred children! I don’t know whether to rejoice at the fact that we are able to feed so many people or to weep at the fact that children might otherwise go hungry. We are a long, long way from the vision of Isaiah, my friends. And yet, we continue to work for it, because we are foolish enough to believe in the fantastic promises of the gospel, that the world can be a fair, just, righteous place.
As I worked on this worship series looking back at our history as a congregation, the person I leaned on the most was Fitz Legerton, who faithfully served this church as pastor for forty-one years. And when he talked about the importance of the Food Pantry, for him it wasn’t just an example of how we care deeply about mission, about reaching out in compassion. For him, it was another example in a long line of things that originated because of an outward focus. We care for those who are here, yes. And yet, if that caring stops at the doors, we have ceased to be Church!
That’s the character of our congregation at the heart of all this. That’s why you called a former missionary as your pastor, because there is no end to God’s mercy and grace! It cannot be stopped by walls or national borders. It will never be limited by our assumptions of what God can do, or by our definition of what is realistic and what is fantasy. If it is truly of God, it will always be true. And if it is truly Christ-like, it will always be Christ-filled.
You see, that’s the thing about this vision that Jesus paints in our lesson from Matthew. At the very end of it all, as the nations gather at the foot of Jesus, they will be separated by those who acted compassionately and those who did not. And in both cases, they have no idea that that’s what they were doing! The righteous will say to Jesus, “When did we see you hungry or thirsty or estranged or naked or sick or imprisoned?” They don’t even know the good they have done, because for them, compassion has become as natural as breath!
So what is it that we do for the least of these? What is it that we do for Christ himself? We feed the hungry. We embrace the lonely. We love…because God first loved us. And if we’re doing it right, we don’t even notice it!
One quick story and then I’m finished. For the past week or so, I’ve been engaging in a new form of daily prayer. For thirty minutes, I sit in a public place and pray quietly to myself, asking God for whom I should pray and what I should pray. My first day at it, I went to a coffee shop and had been there for about twenty-five minutes. Truth be told, I was bored, and almost decided to call it a day. But then I said to myself, “It’s just five more minutes. I can do that.”
It was then that a man walked in through the doors. I recognized him as someone I had met at a funeral. At the reception, he had thanked me for my words, and gone on to tell me about his own pain and loss in life. I knew immediately whom God wanted me there for, so I gave God an internal nod for the extra five minutes, got up from my seat, and walked over.
Where is it that God might be inviting you to spend a little extra time? Where might your breathing need an infusion of the Spirit? How might your daily bread, your communion with God, feed the hungry? The truth is, if you’re doing it right, you might not even notice…