The Church as Front Yard People Who Sing from the Heart

"Hospitality is simply love on the loose.".
Joan Chittister

Recently three threads of my life were braided into one single strand: my one word for the year, a book that captures simple, honest hospitality and my church family. Whenever scattered things come together, I feel the hum of God at work. It is usually subtle at first, then the hum gathers momentum until it becomes song.

That is what happened.

A word

My one word for the year of 2017 is canvas. I have been thinking of canvas as a space to explore possibilities, an open space ready to receive art, an empty place waiting to be filled with beauty and life. I have been exploring all the places where I can find canvases in my life. So far this year I have explored how I found my one word, and canvases in art classes, Sabbath rest and snow days.

A book

Kristin Schell is a Texas girl with a heart for hospitality as big as her home state. She is a mama to four whippersnappers with a busy on-the-go life of work, school, after school activities, dinnertime, homework, church and piles of unfolded laundry on the sofa. Sound familiar? Deep down, she wanted to connect with her neighbors, but how in the world? And when? And where will they sit?

One day in a serendipitous move by a picnic table delivery man, Kristin had an epiphany. It wasn't her backyard that needed a place to connect, it was her FRONT YARD. Kristin took an inexpensive wooden picnic table, painted it her favorite turquoise color and moved it to her front yard with the idea that she needed to do more than wave to her neighbors in passing. She needed to sit down for a hot second and be available.

That's it in a nutshell. Be friendly and available.

Be available to chat, listen and maybe share a cup of whatever you have at the moment or your neighbor brings. Food is always welcome.

The The Turquoise Table by Kristin Schell is the book with a real story of creating hospitality right where you happen to be and facing outward toward your neighborhood.

When I read her book, I knew I didn't have a front yard for a turquoise table, but my church did. I wondered about a certain neglected patio that edges right up to the sidewalk of our church.

You can find out more about Kristin and The Turquoise Table movement of front yard people and how to start your own at her website. By the way, my church found out it doesn't have to be turquoise to be a real Turquoise Table.

A church

The church I attend is a small one, intentionally planted in a quirky older neighborhood with a little village at its heart lined with coffeeshops, boutiques and eateries with names like Fat City Cafe. For the first ten years we met in an old school turned county arts center with class offerings like ceramics, photography, poetry and guitar. Every week, we set up and took down our children's classrooms, folding chairs for worship and all of the AV equipment and musicians' instruments and amps.

Finally, about three years ago, we bought the least building on the block in this neighborhood village where we had put down roots. When I say the least, I mean the worst in most every way: rundown, abandoned, architecturally without charm (at least on the outside), at the edge of the village and no parking.

After a major renovation all the way down to a bare concrete shell, hauling out debris and remnants of rodents and abandonment even by squatters, hoisting up iron-clad oil tanks from the ground underneath the building, we prayer-walked through the space leaving our prayers written on the walls. Then we gave it a good scrub, rebuilt the walls and called it our new church home.

For an entire year, maybe two, our new building, long prayed for and a miracle to behold, did not have a sign out front. It turns out, that not having a sign was just one outward sign of our failed preacher within.

After a heart-wrenching breech of leadership, we have a healthy new shepherd who has given us space and time to grieve while building back our trust. Together we are filling the neglected empty spaces in and around our building, and our hearts. We are in effect painting on the canvas that is our church with thriving new life from within and this is the best part, overflowing out into the community.

Since we had a history of praying over concrete, I added the empty patio on the side of our church property, the one along the sidewalk that runs through the village, to my prayers. It sure seemed a primed canvas just waiting for the art of being neighbors, a spot to stop, sip something cool and connect with human beings of all colors, shapes and sizes. It is ready for life, conversation, story and community. It is ready for people!

A generous soul in our church family sanded and stained an old picnic table, then donated it for a series of summer BBQ's we hosted after services. We mingled as a healing church family with kiddos running around in laughter, but we also welcomed many new families and a few hungry strangers, a homeless teenager and new neighbor on the long haul between paychecks.

I think front yard people are really front porch people. It used to be that folks sat out on their front porches in the evening after dinner and connected with neighbors and those passing by. Maybe that is my experience from living in the south and needing to get out of the heat of the kitchen. I will admit that was more at my grandparent's house where there was no TV, than my own childhood home, but I sense the loss. Becoming front yard people is bringing that lost art of simple, organic connection back into our lives.

I wonder what would happen if we restored front porches to our neighborhoods? Of course, we would have to be willing just to sit outside and see what happens between people. We might have to put down our screens and talk to people we don't know. (Kristin added an ibasket to her idea of hospitality, so we can all be fully present at the turquoise table.)

Just this weekend, we moved off our churchyard and set up our table among all the others at Multnomah Days, a community fair and parade right up Main Street. Our table this time was a much lighter substitute to our picnic table, but the idea was the same: be available and a loving part of the neighborhood.

We snapped out table cloths, hung homemade banners and filled jars with flowers from the backyard. I looked around and thought all we needed was home baked pies!

One couple painted signs for the whole fair. We offered drinks, cookies, games and face painting for the kids. We volunteered to pick up trash for the entire street.

I am not patting us on the back. I'm saying we did what used to come more naturally. We became part of our community by our availability, our presence and our service. We found a way to pay attention to the canvas where we could paint with our loving care and availability.

A few weeks ago when the weather was so fiery hot, 110˚, we opened our air-conditioned doors as a cooling off center. Whenever we have flung our doors open wide, we have met all kinds of people from all kinds of places with all kinds of views. It could get uncomfortable; the rub of so many different hearts against each other can burst our bubbles, but it seems that is how Jesus moved through the world when he was here in skin and bones.

Hospitality challenges our easy ways and pat answers, ones we don't even realize we have. When we pass the potato salad or pour from the water pitcher, we touch another human just by the generosity from our hand, and the generous hand leads to the generous heart.

When the church becomes front yard people, we become front porch people where a smile, a wave and a "Come sit a spell" is welcome.

We become well people.

I can't think of a better way to make Jesus stop, look us in the eye and ask for a cup of cold water.

It seems our world could use a few more hospitable hearts. Might as well start with ourselves.

I've been singing this blast from 1972 all week long after a sweet soul posted the opening line. It hit the spot in a sad week of news. If you remember it, you'll have a sudden craving for a Coke in a bottle. Maybe you'll want to sing along.

I'd like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony
I'd like to hold it in my arms
And keep it company

I'd like to build the world a home.
And furnish it with love
Grow apple trees and honey bees
And snow white turtle doves

I'd like to see the world for once
All standing hand in hand
And hear them echo through the hills
For peace through out the land

The New Seekers

I don't believe it's pie in the sky, but if it is, give me a fat slice.