“Cynicism is the greatest barrier to love. It is rooted in doubt and despair.”
—Bell Hooks, All About Love
I remember this Advent most of all. It was the late 1980’s. I was pastoring Felicity United Methodist Church in the Lower Garden District of New Orleans. Our primary outreach was to the City’s burgeoning homeless population. This was not a new phenomenon but one that I -- in my naivete -- had just discovered. Really it was one that I inherited. This church had for several years been operating a Soup Kitchen in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. It was open only one afternoon a week, on Sundays after worship service, and it lasted no more than two hours. As outreach ministries go, it was a pretty benign affair.
On the surface, that is. Sunday afternoons actually were more of a war zone at Felicity. Private security circled the church all afternoon. Police arrested people in the public park near the church for violations of the City’s vagrancy ordinances. Code enforcers disrupted services on Sunday mornings and ticketed the cars of those serving the meals. Threats came in by phone and often in person. Fights broke out among those in line; outraged parents sought runaway children whom they suspected were feeding the homeless. Likely lured into some type of cult, they’d tell themselves.
Into this mix came the Rev. Helen Frank. Rev. Helen was the self-declared “Minister to the Homeless.” She liberated an abandoned warehouse on the edge of downtown that abutted the Lower Garden District. It was so close to the Interstate that at night the building shook. There was no running water and no electricity. People slept on concrete and at first had no blankets or physical protection from the elements, save the partial roof of this abandoned warehouse.
Every evening she would conduct a Bible Study with whomever was there. She was available to those who needed someone to listen to them; her mere presence created a warm and welcoming place to stay. She was not a professional service provider nor did she see herself operating a program or a ministry. She was providing community although she never spoke of it in that way. As important as what Pastor Frank did was what she did not do. She did not give into cynicism or despair, when either would have been understandable, after working so lovingly and so tenaciously at the intersections of competing injustices. Instead, she loved harder and did her part to make God real in the lives of those folks she served. I met Pastor Frank during the Advent season. It is a special time in the Christian year, a quiet time, an expectant time. As the story goes, Mary and Joseph were expectant. The Magi were expecting as they traveled long distance for something they couldn’t exactly explain even to themselves. This Advent in New Orleans people were expecting. They began to gather at Pastor Frank’s warehouse. I remember it as silent, very silent. The numbers were larger than usual and as midnight approached, they lit candles and started singing: “O Holy Night,” “Come Ye Emmanuel,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” and of course, “Silent Night.”
By the end of the evening maybe a hundred people were there, holding lighted candles. By word of mouth, people came. The singing continued, but the songs had changed. Someone sang John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Those gathered sang it more than once. It was a special moment. An Advent moment.