The Oregon Trail – How we Belong to Each Other

So tonight there were more people in the kitchen than people actually eating. The soup kitchen where I spend a lot of time is what I am referring to, and tonight was ladies night. Carolyn commanded the ship, Ellen provided comedic relief, Jill provided parenting of girls advice. Kris and Evelyn and Audrey helped too.

Normally I would be frustrated that there were too many cooks in the kitchen, but not tonight. Tonight I learned another lesson (seriously, it never stops, its exhausting for me too): I need to be in community. I can not live with just my immediate family inside the 900 or so square feet of our house. I manned the dishwasher, guarding her jealously lest I lose my job.

Being in community can mean a lot of things, it feels like a buzz word or a catch phrase or something. Like “take-away”, which is one of my least favorite work words, as in, Alicia, what was one take-away from the meeting? And I’m like, take-away is food. I don’t know what you mean.

It can mean sitting in the same place in the chancel, with the same people, every week as we sing in choir. It can mean recognizing the other worship ministers across the chancel, even if they do not happen to be my father or my brother.

It can mean trading advice on parenting sometimes snotty girls, funny stories about toothbrushes and husbands and cleaning powder. It can mean watching Carolyn do what I’ve always thought of when I hear a particular Rich Mullins song (here it is if you’re interested). Rich talks about how his mom could make a gourmet meal out of just cornbread and beans, how his parents worked to give faith hands and feet, and somehow, gave it wings. Carolyn is a Depression Era cook, even though she is too young for such things. Nothing is wasted. Nothing is too far gone. She’s not serving yucky leftovers here. She is making wonderful and nutritious food only from what is available to her. When you run a soup kitchen on a shoe string budget this is an important skill.

Community can spring from a group of people taking the same boat you are. The waves toss us to and fro, there is no land in sight, not for days and days, nothing but blue water and each other. But we are together, experiencing the same things, the same longing for a green hillock, the same wish to reach a destination. What I am realizing, through listening to those in my group of confirmants talk, through watching Carolyn cook and seeing how she handles her own precious girl child, what I have learned from talking with Jill and listening to and laughing with Ellen; is that there isn’t a destination.

Not really.

Sure, the Great Vigil will suddenly loom after Holy Week.

Sure, the Bishop will come.

Sure, Julie will be baptized and confirmed all at once as we all stand with her and try not to cry.

Land Ho! Will be the call, but it’s only a stop on the greater journey.

Did you ever play Oregon Trail? We did. I always got so mad when one of my people would die of something I totally could not have planned or prepared for.

But this trip is sort of like that. It doesn’t stop, it goes on and on for as long as you have the stamina to keep driving your oxen (please tell me you bought the oxen!) drawn covered wagon.

And that’s why community is important.

I couldn’t keep going if I didn’t have other wagons to circle up with at night, other camp fires to visit, other travelers to share food with; maybe just another woman to borrow a needle from, to commiserate with on how dusty the trail is, how tired I am.

Tonight, yes, I am finally getting to the point, tonight I learned another lesson about community. It’s not always who we choose to be with, who we choose to spend time with. I am getting to know the people who visit us each week, to know their names and their stories, to let them take my hand sometimes. But they are not the people who make up my world.

Do you understand? It’s not that I don’t want them to, just that in the grand scheme of family and friends and colleagues…. well, these are people I love to cook for and to see and to say hello to, but not people I know intimately.

Tonight though, in my ferocious dish-doing, I glanced up, and I saw those same guests, those same people, breaking down tables and folding up chairs. Why? They don’t have to, no one asked them to, their meal is not dependent upon their servitude.

And then the answer came to me, and it was an example to me of encountering Christ in places I do not mean to. They were doing it because they knew that we belonged to each other.

We belong to each other.

And so if they did not do it, I would have to. And so they did it.

And this is what it means to live in community, to travel via covered wagon (if you bought mules you’ll be dead outside Illinois), to circle up at night, to light fires to drive back the dark.

It means that we are all in this together, and that we belong to each other.

It’s been sort of a long time since I had someone I didn’t expect bring me a message. Today I received fan mail (scream!) regarding a column I wrote for our local paper… and then I saw these people, whom I had just fed, who were free to go, racking up chairs and breaking down tables while I washed their dishes.

And so, we belong to each other. And I was once again reminded of this in the most unlikely place. I went to a soup kitchen and cut up with my friends, and then I met God.

And I still love you.


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