Some friends and I used to meet for a Bible study in inner-city Los Angeles. One week in particular was life-altering. I don’t remember what passage we studied that week, but the discussion moved to Luke 14:12-14:
“He then turned to his host. ‘When you give a lunch or a supper,’ he said, ‘don’t invite your friends or your family or relatives, or your rich neighbors. They might ask you back again, and you’d be repaid. When you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. God will bless you, because they have no way to repay you! You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.'”
Afterwards a friend and I became fixated on this verse. Why don’t we actually apply it? Jesus’s command is direct, clear, and simple to follow. So why don’t we? When we have a dinner, we’re always inviting our other college friends over, people from about the same socioeconomic status as ourselves. Why don’t we ever invite people who can’t pay us back?
We decided then and there that we would work to apply this edict of Jesus to our lives.
Our Bible study group came together again and made a plan to throw a barbecue at a local park for anyone who wanted to come. One of our members worked in a charity center and invited the homeless clients and low-income families that he knew. About half-a-dozen of us prepared burgers and buns and sides, and we all got it ready on the big day….
Only about 10-11 people showed up. We had been hoping our gathering would attract more people from the surrounding community, and there was a lot of extra food left over. Still, the small group of us there had a good time, and we got to mix with each other in ways that we usually didn’t. So we decided to do it again.
The second time around, we decided to advertise more heavily. Our friend at the charity center passed out fliers to his friends and clients with directions to the event. We posted those same fliers in the area of the park a few days beforehand. Anticipating a larger crowd, we registered with the city for a party of up to 40 people.
Over 100 people showed up!
The much-bigger-than-we-anticipated response was overwhelming at first, but it worked out really well. Multiple runs to the local grocery store supplemented our inadequate food supply. Some of the guests pitched in to help cook and serve to ensure there were enough hands on deck. Soon you couldn’t tell who was an inviter and who was an invitee, as guests helped serve burgers while members of the original group mingled throughout enjoying food and conversation.
Two interactions I remember particularly well. My Air Force buddy had come down from the base to see me and got roped into helping out, but ended up spending the afternoon hanging out with a senior citizen veteran. The two of them, separated by 40+ years and race and class, seemed to have a blast swapping war stories. And one of the original planners of the event got into a conversation with a women who was concerned about her children and their studies, and ended up working out a tutoring relationship.
The day was such an overwhelming success that we affirmed our plan to keep doing the event monthly. The third time around, we planned in much the same way as the second. We began gathering and cooking in eager anticipation….
And then the cops showed up.
We quickly learned that they were not there of their own volition, but had been sent by city officials. Apparently, someone had gotten excited about our event and showed one of the fliers to a city official to talk about what a good thing we were doing, and that city official had gotten upset. They thought there might be a “problem” because too many homeless people were coming together in the same space. So they sent the police to us.
We spoke to the police and they agreed that it would be wrong to cancel the event. So the event went off much the same way as the previous one, with 100+ people attending and lots of food and conversation and good will shared between everyone. The specter of two cop cars hanging out off to the side was a minor distraction, but they just sat in their cars the whole time as there was obviously nothing for them to do. Near the end I invited the cops over for some food. They happily joined in and had a great time, seemed to appreciate the burgers and said that it was a great event and their presence was totally unnecessary.
However, they also shared that the city had instructed them that we were barred from holding the event again, as we were illegally holding a “homeless feeding.”
The next week I scheduled a meeting with the city official who had instigated the complaint. She was friendly at first and agreed that we had been doing a good thing. But when I tried to get permission to do it again, she absolutely refused.
“Why not? It’s just a barbecue. We’ve got all the necessary permits.”
“No, you have permits for a party. This is a homeless feeding.”
“This is a party! We’re all coming together to eat. My friend invites his homeless friends, but you can’t discriminate against us just because some of us there are homeless.”
“It is a homeless feeding. You put up fliers. It’s not the same.”
“Okay, we won’t put up fliers next time then. We’ll just invite our friends. Okay?”
“No. You can’t do it. Under any circumstances. There are too many homeless people, it’s dangerous and something could happen.”
“You can’t discriminate against homeless people. It’s just a barbecue. The event is the most peaceful thing ever. We’ve done it three times and had zero problems, everyone is incredibly respectful. The police themselves can tell you that, there were no problems at all. We’ll get all the right permits just like we’ve done every time.”
“No. It is a homeless feeding. You can’t do it.”
And that was that. No matter how strongly I argued the point, she wouldn’t budge. Trying to appease her didn’t work, acting the victim didn’t work, accusing the city of discrimination didn’t work. She said that we were absolutely forbidden from holding any event in the park in which we invited homeless people to join us.
We considered attempting another venue, but we were discouraged and all the momentum that we had built up had died. A few of the new relationships that had been created were sustained for some time, but we never held the event or anything like it again.
Now looking back at my younger self, I’m disappointed that I didn’t push it further. If I had the chance to do it over, I would have held the event anyway, openly defied the city in an act of civil disobedience, challenged them to cite me or arrest me and prove in court that they had the right to discriminate against people who were homeless.
But instead we all got distracted back into our day-to-day lives, and it fell by the wayside.