COMMENTARY: I was hungry and you fed me …

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(UNDATED) A hot bowl of soup prepared for, and personally served to, a stranger is still one of the most sacred, hospitable acts of kindness known to mankind. It’s a simple thing, but then again, most things that truly matter are simple.

Our story starts on a cold wintry day on Orcas Island, Wash.

This past December, a woman drove by our local food bank and saw 40 to 50 people huddled in line waiting for a bag of groceries. She was particularly troubled when she saw a mother trying to shield her baby from the chill.

She decided something had to be done, so she called a few friends from the Community Church and asked them to join her in making some hot soup. She then went to the dentist who owned the adjacent building and asked if they could serve the soup from his lobby.

The next week, as people gathered in line, they received warm soup; those with small children were invited to stay in the lobby to keep warm until their number was called. A week later, the volunteers did this all over again and added freshly brewed coffee (donated by a local coffee roaster) to the mix.

Within weeks, the food bank moved to a clean, warm space with room for storage and serving at the Community Church; best of all, it was adjacent to a large fellowship hall with a fully equipped kitchen.

A young couple in the community was launching a catering business and they began donating a weekly hot food main dish. One of the volunteers offered a ride to a woman who had come for food, and on the way home learned this lunch was the only hot meal this woman had eaten in two weeks. The volunteer took the caterers aside and starting paying their weekly costs for the food. She asked them to add a salad too.

Soon every week, more people in the church and community were dropping by with hot dishes, salads, deserts and fresh vegetables. Six to 10 people were in the kitchen every week now. Nobody was in charge; nobody posted a sign up sheet; nobody planned a menu. People just showed up with food, and other people showed up to eat it.

Given the state of the economy, by summer the number of people using the food bank had doubled over the previous year, and at least that many were stopping by for the meal. On a particularly beautiful warm day, barbeque grills appeared and suddenly, hamburgers and hot dogs were on the menu. People spread out blankets and basked in the sun at the first-ever food bank picnic.

Jesus urged his followers to serve a cup of cool water to the poor on a hot day. Yet anyone who does this knows it’s not just the water that sanctifies the act. Far more significantly, an anonymous person is noticed, a person whose dignity is on the skids is treated with respect, a person who is in a down cycle is given a hand up by a person who’s holding their own.

Somebody might ask: Have any of the food bank visitors visited the church as a result of these efforts? The question itself reveals how church attendance goals — or the number of converts or baptisms — has sometimes replaced acts of kindness as a central mark of following Jesus.

Jesus told a parable about who will be included in the future kingdom of God. In the story, a king is separating his sheep from the goats. When the separation is made, the sheep wonder why they were chosen. Jesus replies that it is their acts of kindness to strangers that earned their place in the kingdom. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Jesus finished saying, “Then he will say to the `goats,’ depart from me; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”

(Dick Staub is the author of “The Culturally Savvy Christian” and the host of The Kindlings Muse (http://www.thekindlings.com). His blog can be read at http://www.dickstaub.com)

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