When I was a stranger you invited me in


December 9, 2013

“And she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”  Luke 2:7

An unusual arctic cold spell hit the southern Willamette Valley over the weekend of December 7th. While most folks in the area are used to the normal overnight lows of 30’s and 40’s, this particular weekend featured a snowstorm that dumped 7 inches of snow on Veneta and then the temperature plunged to a bitterly cold minus 9 on Saturday night. For the brave people who ventured to church Sunday morning the talk soon turned to how the local homeless folks might have fared during the night. “We should open our doors to them this evening,” was the thought rumbling through the fellowship hall.

There are two encampments in the Veneta area and the people are outside year around. Every person has a unique story as to how they ended up in their situation. For some, they lost good paying jobs and wound up on the streets. Others suffer from mental illness and simply cannot cope with mainstream society. Still others are social misfits and minimally educated; this is where they have found acceptance and friendship. The majority have substance abuse issues and rely upon their drug of choice to help them through each day.

Their structures are crude lean-to’s most of them made of limbs strapped together and tarps for the roof and sides. One fellow told me that his was made of lumber that he had scrounged. The heat sources are propane space heaters and gas burning camp stoves. On that frigid Saturday night they ran out of both propane and stove fuel. With all of their clothes on, in their sleeping bags they found themselves in the early morning hours with frost on their beards, faces, and hats.

When Mary and Joseph made their way to Bethlehem for the purpose of registering for the census, they were told by the innkeeper that there was no room. It wasn’t that they were misfits of society or social outcasts, it was because there simply were no empty beds. The best that was offered them was a barn, where Mary gave birth to a son. As people of God, we are challenged each and every day as to whether we have room for Jesus in our hearts. All of us from time to time have essentially said to Jesus, “Sorry, I have no room for you today.” This is especially true when we consider any of those things that take us out of our comfort level (like forsaking our warm soft bed to sleep on the cold hard floor at a church to chaperone the guests).

This dilemma confronted our church folk yesterday. With the strong understanding from Matthew 25 of extending hospitality (“when I was a stranger, you invited me in.”) we knew that if we were to deny these folks food, warm clothes and shelter that we were ultimately denying Christ.

The gratitude was immense. A guy handed over two crumpled dollar bills, “this is to help pay the heating bill,” he said. Another gave us two boxes of sausage that he pulled from his pack to add to the breakfast meal. The leader of the group said, “We don’t normally eat 3 meals a day so our stomachs aren’t used to this. You may have made too much food.” Hot beverages were most welcome, especially sweet and rich hot chocolate. 12 different men and women plus two dogs found shelter from the cold over the last four days.

Many churches in our conference and around the nation are equipped and ready to open their doors as warming centers whenever the temperature drops. What a wonderful way to respond to the call of hospitality and by doing so have done these things for Jesus Christ. The distinction here at Valley is that we were neither equipped or prepared to offer our place as a warming center. Apparently there are some sort of guidelines that organizations must go through in order to have certification as a warming center, we don’t have that yet. Moving forward in a matter of hours we did trust that God would provide. Sleeping mats and blankets showed up. Food came from individuals and from the local food bank. Offers have been extended for more food, warm clothing and to outfit these neighbors with propane and stove gas .

At your next leadership meeting when the topic comes up about ideas for ministry and all the reasons why a church can’t engage in various types of outreach- remember that God can do anything and we as servants can sometimes be the greatest barrier. For the Valley church, housing several neighbors over the last few nights started with an idea and two crumpled dollar bills. As Jimmy Stewart’s character George Bailey said in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “ Get a tray for these two great big important simoleans here…... A toast! A toast! A toast to Mama Dollar and to Papa Dollar, and if you want to keep this old Building and Loan in business, you better have a family real quick.” We aren’t the Building and Loan, we are the church, and the vacancy sign is out because there is room. Room for even the poorest of our neighbors.

Mike Gregor
Mike Gregor serves the local church in Veneta, Oregon.