Recently I emailed Ken Lloyd of HomePDX. I asked him for permission to visit his community gathering and he replied very graciously, granting that permission. So, this afternoon I mustered my courage, overcame my tendency to be shy, and drove to downtown Portland. Nestled near Portland State and just one block west of The Old Church, HomePDX meets during the cold months in the basement of Grace Bible Church of Portland. During the summer months they are on hiatus, but some of them meet informally near the Hawthorne bridge to hang out.
I entered the church building about fifteen minutes before the activities were set to begin at 12:30 pm. I made my way downstairs, intuitively feeling out where I was supposed to go. I entered the church kitchen, and one of the HomePDX workers confirmed I was in the right place. So far, so good. Several people were in the larger room just outside the kitchen so I entered and tried to find Ken. Ah. There he was, busy talking to several people. I felt so conspicuous, no doubt because of my own insecurity.
Finally I was able to get Ken’s attention and let him know who I am. He had recognized me but, at first, could not place me since it has been so long ago that we had first met. We quickly hit it off and I felt much better. I sat at one of the many round tables in the room, asking permission first from those already seated. They said that would be okay.
A deck of cards had been placed on each table, along with some sort of cheese flavored cracker snack food. On an eight foot table behind me, sundry necessary items such as toothpaste were laid out for people to take. They seemed to go very quickly. Seven of us sat at the table, one woman and six men. I listened as all but one of the others talked. Two of the men rolled cigarettes. Another rocked out privately to the music on his dented IPod.
Ken’s Co-Leader led the gathering in a trivia game to win cans of soda. There was spirited participation and competition for such a rare treat. There was also vocal disagreement from a few who did not get their way.
At another table near us, a young man walked in, sat down, and promptly put his head on his folded arms as if to try to sleep. A commotion broke out between a couple of men, prompting the intervention of Ken, not once, but a few additional times as the afternoon progressed. Others milled about. There was laughter, some hugs, some suspicious glances here and there, some dazed expressions and also several who had a clear-eyed wittiness. It reminded me anew that these people are no different than me. Most of them just happen to have no roof over their heads. Oh, there are other factors, to be sure. But each of them has a story. I heard small parts of one or two of their stories. The cool thing is, the final chapters have not yet been written. It makes you wonder why so many in society have written them off, as if they didn’t matter.
The man sitting to my right finally spoke to me after about twenty minutes. “You’re new here, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am.” I smiled and made eye contact.
“I figured. I could tell. You’re looking around alot like you are trying to take it all in.”
“True. This is all new for me, so I am trying to figure things out.”
“Well,” he said, “when it is time for the food, they will call out a card. That card on our table (an ace of spades) is our cue to go get our food. Only two of us are allowed to go. We get the food for everyone else.”
By that time the entire table, seven people including me, was paying attention. One of the men who had rolled a cigarette asked what was on the menu. Another replied, “Tortilla soup.”
“Tortilla soup? What the hell is that?”
A smile and shrug was the reply.
They began to negotiate who would get the food to serve the remainder. My new friend said he would go. So, in keeping with his tutelage, I agreed that I would go, too. That plan was soon nixed, however, when I was approached by one of the HomePDX staff to help serve those who were not seated at a table. The rest of my table shrugged philosophically, and I made my way to help serve the hungry folks on the perimeter of the room. Notably, my former tablemates seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed their meal. Apparently, the tortilla soup and accompanying salad acquitted itself well.
When my service was concluded I engaged in a conversation with a young man, probably in his mid-twenties. For his protection I will not give any further details. However, our conversation seemed to have impacted us both. He said goodbye to me as he prepared to leave soon after. I will be praying for this new friend.
HomePDX is “technically a church” according to their website. I understand now why they offer that caveat, because of what most people think of when they see or hear the word church. Although I did not stay the entire time, I was there for just under 1 1/2 hours. Apparently they begin at 12:30 and meet throughout the afternoon. Thus, I did not experience all that probably is still going on as I write this post. Yet, I got a taste of their ethos, their way of being with each other. And I am touched.
After the meal was served, Ken’s co-leader (I do not recall her name) offered a beautiful statement of what they are about. I will paraphrase it the best that I can recall it. “We are here to learn to grieve together, laugh together, and celebrate together.” She explained that she understood that she could not expect others to be vulnerable with her, if she is not willing to open up to them. “This is a safe place for me to do that. You are my community. We care about each other,” she said.
I apparently was not the only new person that day. My best conservative estimate is that there were at least eighty people who gathered for food, possibly more. I did not want to be conspicuous in counting heads. I was made to feel welcome by the leadership, and by a few of the regulars who gather weekly with them. Unlike most churches, I was put to work right away. I asked them how I could help, and they showed me. No special class, or sitting for weeks on end listening to sermons and teachings before I could be deemed fit to help hand out lunch plates.
As a sidebar, I also got to meet one of HomePDX’s partner ministers, a man who fixes bicycles and teaches others to fix their own as well. He was in the back of the church with an impressive array of equipment and tools. One person was putting the finishing touches on his bike as I engaged him in conversation. After awhile, two more men approached with two bikes, and his work continued. I loved the practicality of his ministry, as well as that of the entire HomePDX community.
HomePDX is not the typical church, as by now you have surmised. There is not a sermon. There was some very well played live piano music in the background, but no congregational singing or public reading of Scripture. It was not a church service in any sense which would be recognizable to a typical mainline or evangelical Christian. Yet, I did witness exhortations, discipline, encouragement, and love in abundance. It just didn’t come of the form of three points and a poem. Not that there is anything wrong with poetry. Here, you can even read mine to discover my lack of guile on this issue.
While those who lead HomePDX and also meet with them are followers of Jesus, many others likely are not, and some may never be. Kind of like any other typical church, if we decide to be honest about it. The difference is that at HomePDX all are welcome. There is no requirement to believe, look, or even smell a certain away before a person is able to belong. They belong because they are alive and present. Beyond the weekly hot meal and sense of community, maybe that explains why so many of them keep coming back week after week. At HomePDX they are appreciated and loved as friends, regardless of who they are and how long they have been around.
Thank you Ken and HomePDX for allowing me a glimpse into your lives. I pray God’s richest blessings for you in the days to come.