Want to join us for a Sunday morning worship service?
Sorry, I'm working.
Want to help out with the youth group?
Uh, no thanks, I work with kids all week, starting Monday at 7 a.m.
Why don't you come to a Bible study?
Nope, that's not me.
Come Thursday night for dinner?
_ I can do that! _
Those are the kinds of responses I often hear from young adults when invitations are made. How can those of us who claim the Christian tradition be present in the lives of young adults who are living in our communities, many who are serving in programs like AmeriCorps and Teach for America?
How do we express hospitality? How do we express love in a way that is inviting, not off-putting, that is affirming of all, not critical of difference? How do we nourish the spirit and the soul of a population we care about but often don't see?
It's not by inviting them to do things we want them to do or that we did when we were their age. (Twister, anyone?)
In my days as a student activist l learned a variation on the theme from the movie "Field of Dreams": If you feed them, they will come.
On a recent Thursday night, students at Wesley Seminary organized a dinner for young people who are working in various service corps around the D.C. area. These Wesley students are part of the Community Engagement Fellows program, an effort at eight seminaries to support young adults who want to connect their passion for service with their faith formation. Many of these students did a year or more of community service before entering seminary.
All of them know firsthand the challenges of seeking to serve in the world as young idealists and activists.
They decided to offer what they wanted most: fellowship and food.
This is what they did:
- Looked up all the AmeriCorps and yearlong faith based programs in the metro area
- Reached out to the directors of these programs
- Contacted individuals they knew from around the area
- Used the web to get the word out and get some of idea of who might be attending
- Prepared a modest meal
- Kept it simple: 7-9 p.m. food, drinks, a simple ice-breaker, introductions, conversation, desert, goodbyes and come agains!
At the event last week, there were 30 young adults in the room. They came from the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, the Brethren Volunteer Service, Sojourners, Vista and AmeriCorps as well as from other graduate schools.
One of the guests read a quote from Dorothy Day's autobiography:
While I lived in the east side, I felt the spell of the long loneliness descend on me. In all that great city of seven millions, I found no friends; I had no work; I was separated from my fellows. Silence in the midst of city noises oppressed me. My own silence, the feeling that I had no one to talk to overwhelmed me so that my very throat was constricted; my heart was heavy with unuttered thoughts; I wanted to weep my loneliness away ... And yet ... I wanted to go and live among [the impoverished in Chicago]; in some mysterious way I felt that I would never be freed from this burden of loneliness and sorrow unless I did.
The room was quiet; everyone knew what Dorothy Day was talking about. Anyone there could have written those words or are living them now.
Someone broke the silence and then another spoke and for the next 45 minutes there was nothing but conversation, so much so that the ice cream started to melt.
I told them, "We don't want anything from you, but we want to be present for you as you do the things you feel called to do." Jonathan later described the gathering as "a simple space to come together and be surrounded by what I name as the grace and peace of God."
Kate said, "to be honest, I had no idea what to expect when my friend Ryan invited me other than a free dinner. ... free food now feels like Christmas morning living on a tight budget. The food may have brought me there, but the conversations I had is what will bring me back."
Bryan, an advocacy assistant with the Church of the Brethren and National Council of Churches, said he was encouraged to hear about the work of his peers and their contributions to efforts around the environment, poverty and peacebuilding.
"Sometimes when we get boxed in at our positions we feel that we may not be making much of an impact, but connecting with like minds reminds us that the struggle for progress is a collective effort, and that we are all in this," he said.
"We too frequently forget the power of community and the importance of sharing each other's burdens, but meetings such as this showcase how real community is not dead, and perhaps is making a comeback ... loving and living within the community with no strings attached is inspiring."
For everyone that was there, a dozen others would have been there too if they hadn't had a conflict, if they'd known about it.
We decided that we would do it again a month from now.
And the thought came: Why not do it elsewhere? Why not everywhere?
So we have decided to launch an initiative we will call "The Table." On the Third Thursday of every month, congregations will bring young adults in the service world together to talk.
If you are inspired by what Wesley students did, go out and do likewise. Research, call, invite, follow up, welcome, feed, talk, listen, stay in touch and do it again.
You can do it as a church, a coalition of congregations, a college, a seminary or as a family.
Go the link The Table (www.faith3.org/the-table/) on the FAITH3.org website and we will help you get started.
So a year from now, when we're in the midst of Advent, let's have more than 100 congregations and other groups follow Wesley Seminary's lead and gather folks around the table for food, fellowship and conversation.
Chances are you won't get more than 30 the first night, but by the third or fourth month everyone will bring a friend and you will begin to be a telling presence for those who we want to know and affirm.
When people left the Wesley event, they were hugging and high-fiving, trading emails and talking about plans for the "next time."
The last to leave were -- you guessed it -- the Brethren Volunteers. Their hands filled with leftover chicken.
Nothing went to waste and a seed had been planted.
Follow Wayne Meisel on Twitter: www.twitter.com/waynemeisel12