The worker from Eduador spoke of his family back home as he stood in the Home Depot parking lot in Washington, D.C. last week. His brow wrinkled and his voice broke. He’s a long way from home and his existence here is day-to-day precarious.
As I listened, I felt a tug of emotion as well. The air was cool and wet. It was an unlikely day to pick up work. About 100 men stood in small groups dispersed around the lot. They wait here each morning for contractors and others needing day laborers. But if it’s wet they can’t paint, cut grass, install fences or do the myriad other jobs that are their lot.
I saw only one worker chosen this morning. For those left there will be no remittance back home. No food money. No rent earned today.
The bishops listened. They prayed with the workers, served them breakfast and introduced some of them to a staff member of Foundry United Methodist Church who works with migrant day laborers and with an organizer who has created an advocacy group for them.
The conversation was triggered by the launch of the church’s media campaign called "Rethink Church." It’s an effort to ask United Methodists to rethink how to be the church in this new century.
What happened in the Home Depot parking lot, and in other parking lots in metropolitan Washington that morning, was church. Not in the traditional sense. In the John Wesley sense. In the way Jesus did it. Church in the streets.
When Wesley confronted conditions of the poor in London and Birmingham he went to them. Outside the walls of the institutional church. In the fields near the mines where the miners toiled. In the teeming neighborhoods of the poor in the backstreets of London.
He preached, prayed, offered them medical care, taught them to read, led study groups, visited them when they were sick and sought work for them. He took the church outside itself and he started a movement.
In Gaithersburg, Maryland , Bishop Minerva Carcano and her episcopal colleagues had a similar conversation. But one worker saw her and said, "Obispo." Bishop. He asked her for holy communion.
There was a flurry of activity. Loaves of bread appeared, and what someone described to me as "some kind of purple liquid." And right there in that place spontaneously, unrehearsed, the Lord’s Supper was consummated. The bishops of the church and the workers who live hand to mouth every day shared bread and "wine" in Jesus’ name.
Bishop Carcano spoke these magnificent words: “I don’t think that it is enough to simply declare that we stand with the immigrant." The launching of Rethink Church at a day laborer camp is "a way of saying to those who are immigrants that we walk with you, we journey with you, Christ journeys with you. Scripture calls us to love you and therefore we are here with you. ”
Lest you think this was a moment in time, a quick, feel-good diversion, the bishops went to Capitol Hill in the afternoon and spoke to Senators and Congresspersons about poverty legislation and immigration reform. They also affirmed a call to action to address poverty and immigration and committed themselves to raise $75 million for global health. And they agreed to roll back their salaries to last year’s level and called each other to voluntarily contribute to the mission of the church.
I won’t claim I heard the voice of God in that parking lot, but when a reporter interviewing me asked, "What do you think Jesus would say about this?" the following thought came immediately to mind.
I’ve been too wrapped up in bureaucratic and administrative entanglements. I haven’t been here on the street where life happens. At least not as much as I would like and not as much as I should be.
I said, "I think he would say, ‘Welcome. I’ve been here all along. I’ve missed you. Welcome back.’"
By the grace of God we will rethink church and rediscover who we are and where we should be, and we will re-discover that church happens not only in the sanctuary during sacred worship but also in the noisy, wet parking lots where people hustle to get by one more day, places where Jesus is already present, calling us to join him.