If you made it to this page, you likely are already familiar with FOCUS--that is, you know generally about the mission and work of the organization (if this isn't the case, feel free to check out our "About" page for some basic information). However, without spending a lot of time at FOCUS Center, it can be hard to have a clear picture of our work and the ethos that undergirds it. This blog series, "A Day in the Life," is meant to give you a window into the "What's" and "Why's" of FOCUS. Starting with today's post, we hope to use this space to let you in to the core of what we do.
When I think of describing Sunday Night Dinners at FOCUS, the word, "mercy," is the first that comes to my mind.
Mercy is of course, at the core of FOCUS' mission, but I think it characterizes our weekly community meal in a special sort of way. There is no registration process for Sunday Dinners. There is no upper limit on how many members of your family you can bring, or how often per month you can come. You don't have to bring an I.D. or proof of address. Anyone can show up for a hot meal and a warm space, no questions asked.
Lord have mercy.
Friday, 11:30 AM
The logistics of Sunday Dinners really start today. I stop in at the Center, touch base with Vera, our Director, and check the supply closet to make sure we're stocked up on paper products and silverware. I also check the calendar to confirm who will be bringing the meal and helping to serve it. We are blessed to have a schedule of regular groups from local parishes, youth sports teams, and other volunteers. This week in particular, a youth group from an Orthodox Parish is scheduled to serve.
Sunday, 3:55 PM
I pull up to FOCUS, a few minutes early...and am greeted by a small assembly of people already waiting to be let in: the catering team from the youth group is already here! So are John* and Alex*, our former-clients-turned-volunteers. They used to come every week to eat dinner. Now they come to serve, one acting as an informal DJ by providing ambient music, the other helping wait tables.
Lord have mercy.
I unlock the door and we all begin to unload and carry in supplies.
40 minutes until we open for guests and set-up is already in fully swing. FOCUS' large multipurpose room has been transformed into a dining room, complete with table clothes, plastic ware and condiments at each place, and ambient music in the background.
Coffee is brewing and volunteers are busy in the kitchen, warming tortillas, heating taco meat, chopping tomatoes.
Most of our core group of volunteers also have arrived by now. We have an informal team of three to five who devote their time and energy to FOCUS almost every week. In many ways, they are what makes Sunday Nights run smoothly.
Lord have mercy.
We gather in the kitchen as the first guests start to arrive. Vera gives general instructions and assigns people to different tasks in order to make the evening run smoothly. Volunteer adults: prepare plates in the kitchen. Youth volunteers: bring plates to guests and clean and reset places as they empty. One more person is assigned to refill drinks, another two to keep track of the number of people in the dining room and order plates from the kitchen.
We then take a minute to pray over the meal and regain our focus for the evening.
"...and to the guests we shall receive, O merciful Lord, grant peace, security, and healing and Thy merciful loving kindness as they bear the challenges of this earthly life..."
These words articulate why we are all really here tonight. It's not about how meany meals we serve. It's not about who the guests are or hardships they may or may not face. It's not even just about giving a meaningful volunteer experience to the group who brought the meal. It's about doing what we can to provide a bit of kindness to those who come to us.
Lord have mercy.
As we break up the prayer circle and take our stations, the dining room starts to fill. Families. Single adults. Children of various ages. Troops of 4 or 5 friends who came together. The dining room starts to hum with activity. As guests are seated, volunteers offer them something to drink before bringing them a plate from the kitchen. No buffet lines here. We want the guests to feel as if they're in a restaurant. We want their time to be restful.
People continue to filter in and the pace of things picks up. As the first round of guests finishes their dinner, we offer them seconds, sometimes thirds. Later on, if we have enough extra food, we will also offer them a to-go box of extra portions. You see, for many of them, this meal is the first (and only) meal that they get all weekend.
Lord have mercy.
The first round of folks gradually begins to wrap up their meals and take their leave. Some finish quickly without stopping to chat.As their spaces empty, a youth volunteers cleans and resets it for the next guest. Others linger over a second cup of coffee and, when we volunteers get a chance, we make an effort to sit down with them. Sometimes we exchanges names for the first time and make pleasant small talk, but many of the people who linger are regulars and the conversation is spent catching up on life. These are the guests that bring the sense of familiarity associated with community.
That is, after all, what these Sunday dinners are: a little community that has emerged over the last five years over a shared hot meal.
By now, the evening is wrapping up. The youth are busily breaking down tables and taking out the trash. Most of our guests have left by now--most stopping to say "thank you's" and "goodnight's," others simply shuffling out the door. A few stragglers are still finishing up.
A woman comes through the front door. "Excuse me...is there where the...the free dinner is?"
A volunteer greets her and guides her to one of the remaining tables, where we quickly bring her a plate of hot food. Someone sits down with her as she eats. She's upset, crying quietly over her food, mumbling to herself. Though she tells us very little about her circumstances, it's clear she's struggling. And in this particular space, at this particular time, with so little information, there's not much we can really do that will offer a permanent "fix" for whatever situation she's in.
But was can offer a hot meal. We can offer her information about shelters nearby and offer to call them for her. We can offer a new coat out of our clothes closet to replace the one she's wearing that won't zip. We can encourage her to come back next week, for the foodshelf on Wednesday, for the clothes distribution on Friday. Most importantly, we can offer a listening ear, some kindness, and a safe space, if only for a little while.
And just maybe, God willing, these little offerings can help blunt the sting of the hardship this woman faces.
Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.
We always welcome people who would like to be more involved in this ministry! For more information about our Sunday Night Community Dinners, or if you are interested in volunteering as a catering group or in any other capacity, fill out a volunteer form on our "Get Involved" page.
*indicates names changed for privacy reasons.
From Vera Proctor: As director of FOCUS Minnesota, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to all who participated in our recent workshop, “Street Medicine: Healing in an Urban Environment.” We are deeply thankful to Fr. Paul Hodge and the Minnesota Eastern Orthodox Christian Clergy Association (MEOCCA) for the inspiration and support in facilitating this meaningful connection with Doctors Without Walls—Santa Barbara Street Medicine.
We learned so much from Fr. Jon-Stephen Hedges and Jennifer Ferraez during the two-day workshops. Many participants commented that hearing their street medicine stories reinforced their commitment to our St. Luke Project.
Our work at FOCUS Minnesota constantly reminds us that serving members of our community in need is a blessing and a privilege. Now, we are even more energized with the prospect of the St. Luke Mobile Medical Clinic extending God’s mercy beyond the walls of FOCUS and onto the streets of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
If you were unable to participate in this recent workshop there is an ongoing need for more volunteers—medical and non-medical! We are grateful for any gesture of support—volunteering, financial and of course, your prayers.
Windows are in and a door on the other side, insulation and an underfloor. Progress is slow but steady and interior walls going up soon. We are currently searching for a trailer to permanently hold the clinic!
SHOWING MERCY OR A MERCY RECEIVED?
On Lake Street, in the south-metro area of Minneapolis, the work and mission of FOCUS Minnesota, an Orthodox Christian outreach to the urban poor and needy, is confronted daily with the fundamental directives and teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ. FOCUS centers in various cities throughout the US, are engaged in real grassroots Christian outreach to people among us – our brothers and sisters in Christ, our neighbors – who are disadvantaged and needing in ways material, emotional, and spiritual.
In the Gospel of Luke, 10:25-37 we hear the famous story of the Good Samaritan, a parable that Jesus used to answer a question posed to Him by a young man well versed in Jewish law.
An outline of the passage (the Spark Notes version) is as follows:
Mercy suggests a gift of kindness, often unmerited and sometimes unexpected. It is not simply kindness; it is kindness in face of an opportunity to do otherwise. The reason why the Samaritan is called “good” and is described as “showing mercy” is that, as a stranger among the Jews, the Samaritan acted outside of his comfort zone and against his own history and community interest. He showed mercy when in fact he would have been justified to walk on by.Yet he didn’t; and we shouldn’t either.
But the Gospel turns the ‘neighbor’ equation around. All of us tend to identify with the Good Samaritan, thinking ‘aha, so here’s our example – good and kind and magnanimous, overcoming all differences.’ And we start to believe that, in being like the Good Samaritan ourselves, we come from a point of strength – here, let me help you with that. But Jesus Christ turns this around. He doesn’t say that the neighbor is the poor guy bloodied on the road and so we should all be do-gooders to help “our neighbor” No, the neighbor is the one who showed mercy. Before we can go out and save the world with our expansive and self-satisfying “mercy,” we must first understand in our humility that the one who proved neighbor was the one who showed mercy…. upon us. For in fact we too are the ones in need just like the man lying on the road. We must realize we are just as needy and vulnerable as anyone we might serve. If we understand ourselves as being in need of mercy in order to give, only then we can “go and do likewise.”
There is a lot to discuss about service to the urban poor. And I mean specifically service in function of the gospel teachings of Christ. Having spent the last three years involved with an Orthodox outreach to those in need, I can tell you that we’re confronted with the real deal and we find ourselves engaged with authentic urban grassroots community work. The need is overwhelming and constant, and we try to return what we find with love. So the initial or fundamental task is to love on another, to serve and to encounter living icons that are made in the image and according to the likeness of God, just like you and me. So to ‘go and do likewise,’ we will emulate the Samaritan and will perceive in people: You need, you want, you are hurting, you are dirty, you’re sick, you’re drunk, you’re lonely, you scare me…this isn’t in my comfort zone. But when we understand that the neighbor is the one who showed mercy, we will perceive: you are funny, you are sweet, you’re confused, you’re searching, you’re thankful, you’re interested, you’re worried, you’re trying hard…. just like I am.
We run a food shelf at FOCUS Minnesota on Thursday afternoons. One day a woman came in, Jan, who we see occasionally; she’s been to food shelf a few times, has come for clothing at our free weekly clothes closet and sometimes will come and eat at our Sunday night community meal. It was the typical rush right at 3pm when we open our doors and invariably there’s a line of people waiting for groceries. In the buzz, Jan walks up to the table and we assume she’s here for food. When we ask her for her ID in order to look her up in our file of clients, she fumbles with a piece of paper in her pocket, folds it and quietly just pushes it across the distribution table to one of our volunteers. The volunteer opens the piece of paper and discovers a money order for $25. A little confused he looks at Jan and she says “you helped me when I really needed help, and I know there are others who are in the situation I was in a few weeks ago, so I just want you to use this to buy food for the food shelf so you can help someone else.” She didn’t take food, but smiled and turned and headed for the door. There is no question that Jan could have used the $25, just as there is no question that I would be extremely happy to have an extra or unspoken-for $25 in my wallet. Who is my neighbor? Well clearly it was Jan that day, who showed mercy to FOCUS, or to those in need through us, and we were humbled for we knew that we needed that $25 to help feed the poor. It will be the person who crosses the road for you who is your neighbor.
Eternal life,love, service, mercy,salvation …wow. Showing mercy upon those whom we encounter and who are in need is being obedient to Jesus’ teachings. But living a full life in Christ means taking on the possibilities, even more so the opportunities, to recognize and to receive mercy from others. You can come into this sort of exchange by stretching, flexing, and sticking your neck out so that you may come to understand – and be blown away by – the reality of encountering who your neighbor can be.