Earlier this month, our two congregations came together to participate in the ELCA “God’s Work; Our Hands” Day of Service. ELCA congregations all across the United States organized and did service projects in their local communities, as a way of witnessing to God’s grace-filled work in the world through the hands of the church.
Our congregations decided to serve in a unique way: we handed out free bottled water to folks who came to take part in the Olde Towne Merchants’ Faire, a way to promote local business by the Olde Towne Business Association of Portsmouth. So everyone bought cases of water, filled their coolers full of ice and bottles, and handed them out to folks until all the water was gone – at the end of the day, we estimated we gave away over 700 bottles of water on a 90 degree day.
As you can see, our folks went “mobile” with the water – carting around their coolers and handing out water to folks. And the stories were probably the best part – how people reacted to being offered a free bottle of water and how our people felt while handing out water to complete strangers.
People reacted in all sorts of ways: most were appreciative on a hot day. For the most part, people were like “yeah, I’ll take one” and moved on. Others struck up a conversation, making small talk, and asking us why we were doing this. They got the fact we were a church – it was on our shirts – and church’s do nice and “good” things all the time. But to give it away for free, with no cute bible verse attached or invitation to attend our churches…..why would you do that?
Then there were those who well, tried to avoid us at all costs. Walking on the other side of the street. Others who said no thank you, and “I’ve already been asked by 3 of your people already.” Others who well, tried to resist and eventually gave in after being asked for the 10th time. “I suppose it’s a sign I need a bottle of water, huh?”
And then there were those who thought they needed to give something in return. “Can I make a donation?” Nope. One woman actually insisted we take $20 from her, to the point where she chased one of our people down, took her hand and put the money in it, saying, “You have to take this; I can’t not give you something.”
And then there were our folks. How in the heck do you go about giving bottles of water to complete strangers? At first, they congregated around our rally point, not sure what to do. And then, one by one, two by two….they ventured out. They found the best spot, and some realizing their limitations, parked themselves on a corner. Others wandered around.
And then, the whole asking thing: one person noted that when she offered the water, the person refused initially. When she added it was “free” the person accepted it. And that got her to thinking: “What if I tell people up front its free?” Others learned that their tone mattered. How you ask is just as important as the asking itself.
All in all, it was a good day, and our folks walked away feeling great about what they did. They felt good about the interactions they had, and what they experienced that day. Lots and lots of stories, too many to share here. But while they felt great, some struggle to see the “God at work” in what they did. Giving away water was an act of kindness, a “Christian” act,” but what it was beyond that, it was hard to see. So I asked them:
What if the act of giving away a free bottle of water was the act of God giving away grace?
That means that this day of service, the simple act, also bears reflecting on God’s grace – how people respond to it, and how we communicate it as the church.
Understand that not all people respond to a free gift of grace the way we’d like or expect them to. We won’t know their motive either – whether they just don’t find it valuable, it’s strange or they feel it’s something they have to pay back for. But in the end, the response of the receiver should never keep the church proclaiming that invitation to grace, the offer of the free gift is always there for the taking.
And that leads us to the next question: how do we, as the church, communicate grace? Do we communicate it in a way that people will hear it? Do they see that it’s a grace for them, for their lives? Do we communicate it with openness in a way people come on their own terms to accept it, or do we try to pound them over the head with it, in order to get them to accept it….because well heck, we know it’s important, it’s about damn time they realize it too!?
How we communicate grace as a church won’t stop it from being offered, but it may turn folks away; people will indeed not hear it or experience it. God uses the church as an agent of God’s grace, and so how the church communicates grace to the world matters.
That’s why days of service like this one, and ministry in general is important for congregations. It draws them into a deeper understanding of God and God’s call for them to be the church to the world. I know it was an important day for our congregations. And we hope and pray there will be many more to come!