Today I had the privilege of preaching and presiding at the 35th Anniversary celebration of Hope Lutheran Church in Springtown. This congregation exemplifies what it means to welcome the stranger and to follow the teachings of Jesus. They may be small in number (so small they can only afford a very part-time pastor), but the ministry they do is huge.
Pr. JoAnne Swehosky has been serving them for almost seven years. During that time, they have developed a large community garden, a huge blackberry patch, an orchard with many brand new fruit trees, and five honeybee hives. They support food pantries, collect school supplies, and welcome several community groups to their facilities.
They also welcome people to worship who may not be welcomed in most congregations. And when I say welcome, I mean with wide open arms! Pr. Swehosky told me the story of Billy, a homeless man who showed up at their garden dedication three years ago with his dog. He and his dog began attending worship regularly. Well, the dog didn’t come into worship but was leashed outside during the service. However, he and Billy showed up almost every week for a year and a half.
While many people may have shied away from a smelly, dirty, homeless man, this congregation embraced him. Several members made sure that he had clothes without holes, food that he could store outside, a working bike with good tires, a warm coat in the winter, and many other things he needed. He was welcome at church events and meals, and most importantly, the communion table. He became a part of the congregation.
Billy was also quite ill due to the effects of AIDS. Pr. Swehosky and her Parish Nurse, Marcia Shumate, both did many hospital visits to see him. When Billy died, his family asked Pr. Swehosky to do his graveside service, and many members of the congregation also attended.
While the Community Garden of Hope is meant to feed the hungry with food, it also fed Billy with welcome and love and acceptance for the last several months of his life. This whole day – the congregation, the stories, the Garden of Hope, the examples of ministry – all fed me today, too. I was sent home with a quart of fresh blackberries but so much more for my soul.