Sharing lunches, communion in the streets of Syracuse
It’s 8 p.m. on a Thursday night at Wholely Grounds Café, located at The ROAD at West Genesee United Methodist Church in Syracuse – Peanut Butter Jelly Time, as they fondly call it. Members and volunteers are busily at work, smearing peanut butter and jelly on bread, counting bags of chips, granola bars, and fruit, and snapping open brown paper lunch bags that will soon be filled. As the lunches are assembled, the bags are loaded into bins, which will be brought to Perseverance Park in Syracuse at noon Friday for “Open Street Communion.”
“I know I’m helping people even if I don’t see them,” said Ben Thomas, an 11-year-old who volunteers with his father at Peanut Butter Jelly Time and Open Street Communion (OSC).
At OSC – a mission of The ROAD, an Upper New York Conference new faith community – members and volunteers hand out free lunches and offer prayer and communion to anyone walking by. In the winter, they also distribute socks, hand warmers, hats, gloves, and sleeping bags.
“They don’t have to look homeless, they don’t have to look like they don’t have a place to go, we just offer it to everybody, and we see who responds,” said the Rev. Rebecca Laird, pastor at The ROAD and Cicero UMC.
Approximately two years ago, Rev. Laird went to Denver for the School of Congregational Development, specifically so she could spend time with the Rev. Jerry Herships and discuss his ministry “AfterHours Denver,” where volunteers go to downtown Denver and hand out 100 lunches to the homeless every day of the week.
She was inspired.
Rev. Laird and leadership at The ROAD were looking for ways to “take The ROAD deeper,” and they agreed that mission was the answer.
“So without planning, without figuring out really how we were going to sustain it, we just knew if we started, we wouldn’t be able to stop,” Rev. Laird said. “We started handing out, doing Open Street Communion that first Friday after Labor Day, and we’ve been there every Friday since. We don’t miss one; rain, snow, sleet, shine, we’re there.”
The entry point for OSC is the offering of a lunch or water bottle. If a person accepts either of these, the volunteers engage the individual in conversation and eventually ask if he/she would like communion or to pray.
“The relief for some people that, when they come upon us, and they realize we’re handing out free lunches and there’s no catch to it and we offer prayer and communion, they’re just so dumbfounded by that; there’s a grace to that that’s just really powerful to see,” Rev. Laird said. “And for some people, it’s the only lunch they would have had that day.”
Rev. Laird said some people are thankful The ROAD offers communion on the street corner because they haven’t been in a church building in years, but now have the opportunity to take communion. She thinks it’s important to be in the community and to meet people where they are.
“There’s something different about standing out on a street corner and offering something for free with no strings attached,” Rev. Laird said. “And the reception that we’ve received from that has been really powerful due to the fact that people, they feel a connection with us, they can talk to us, they don’t feel judgment from us, and sometimes you’ll see some of the people handing out lunches sit down next to someone and talk to them while they’re eating their lunch.”
The number of lunches made varies based on the time of year. During the summer, they make 99 lunches, and within an hour, those lunches are gone. During the winter, they make at least 33 lunches because there are fewer people on the streets. Any leftover lunches are given to the Syracuse Westside Urban Mission at the Brown Memorial UMC in Syracuse, where Pastor Olga Gonzalez distributes them.
The lunch materials are collected mainly on a donation basis from members, volunteers, Wegmans, and local churches – especially the Bowens Corners UMC in Fulton. One member at The ROAD, Sherri Mackey, goes shopping each week to make sure they have enough peanut butter, jelly, bananas, chips, and granola bars.
“For me, my faith is shown by doing things,” Mackey said. “The fact that people don’t have food at any time, it bothers me.”
Rev. Laird said members and volunteers see people for who they are at OSC.
“Often you hear the homeless or the working poor say that they’re just a number or they’re invisible to the world around them, and so when we actually get to talk to someone, and we get to look them in the eye, and we offer them a lunch, and we have conversation with them and prayer with them or offer communion to them, we see them as a human being,” she said. “And there’s something life-giving to that … It’s life-giving for anyone who has ever handed out lunches on the street corner with us; they come away seeing a grace and seeing God’s love.”
And the spirit of Open Street Communion is catching. Rev. Laird said a few people have approached her, saying they’ve been inspired by The ROAD and now pack lunches to carry in their car and hand out when they see someone in need.
“The ROAD is … not about shoving a message down people’s throats, but allowing the love of God to just flow from all of us through our hospitality, through our conversations, through building relationships and connecting with people to the point that they come to know God’s love and God’s grace for themselves,” Rev. Laird said.
“It might be a new way to do church, but it’s still a way to do church,” she said.