Saturday afternoons are a crazy mixture of bliss and chaos at Joe’s.  Simultaneously we run the Food Pantry and the Children’s Craft Time right there in the main coffee shop, while continuing to serve lattes and bottomless coffees to the locals who are watching football on the big screen or playing a game of Skipbo.

I say it’s a mixture of bliss and chaos in that there is the excitement of a crowd of people receiving provision and the blessing of community, but there is also the pandemonium of busyness, noisy children and a long line of people patiently awaiting their obligatory interview at the computer table for the Food Bank’s administrative records.

In the midst of this commotion, I kind of floated in observing with wonder the chaotic scene.  I passed by Chris, the leader of our Food Pantry ministry as he was sitting at the computer taking someone’s information.  Laying my hand on his shoulder, I asked, “How’s it going?”  Stress, bordering on panic, reflected in his eyes as he said, “We don’t have anyone to pray with people today!”

We usually have three stations for the Food Pantry: the computer table——for taking their information, a prayer station——for those who would like to receive prayer, and the rows of grocery bags piled on the stage——for distribution.  For some reason the prayer volunteer had not shown up this day.  Chris highly values the opportunity we have to pray with folks, so he had been trying to take identification, enter it into the computer and also offer prayer to each person. But it was taking too long!  Now the line was backing up, out the door, onto the sidewalk outside!

I jumped in and became the “Pray-er” for the day.  What a privileged position!  Such humility expressed by each person who asked for prayer.  Some requested that God help them find employment.  Some wanted prayer for a near relative who was experiencing pain in their life.  Many cried as we prayed together.  All were grateful for the few moments of personal touch and empathy.  Each of their faces and needs is a story of its own, but the man who stood out to me that Saturday afternoon was Jimmy.

A thin, slight build and stooped shoulders characterize Jimmy’s physical appearance. He wears a brown, 1980’s Member’s Only jacket.  Jimmy is not quite middle-aged, but his face clearly shows the aging lines of a hard life.  Gravity and pain have taken their toll, leaving what seems to be a permanent frown and a perpetual five o’clock shadow.

When I asked Jimmy what I could pray for him, he immediately began to cry.  He told me that he had ruined his life.  Jimmy is a felon, did one year in prison and had just recently been released.  He has a large bill of court costs and fines to pay, but he was having a terrible time finding a job.  In this economy, who wants to hire a felon? Jimmy’s eyes not only reflected tears, but also terror when he exclaimed, “I don’t want to go back to prison!”

“Jimmy,” I asked, “What kind of work did you do before you went to prison?”  He looked down at his own hands with what appeared to be longing, and he responded, “You’d never guess what I have done with these hands.”  A momentary rush of dread crossed my mind, as I thought, “Oh no! Where is this going?!”

Jimmy looked up at me with eyes brimming and said, “I went to culinary arts school . . . I was a chef.”  His shoulders began to shake with sobs as he moaned, “No one will ever hire me as a chef again.  I have ruined everything.”

I felt my own eyes filling up, and I told Jimmy that I didn’t know what God might do, but I know what He is like.  He is a Redeemer.  He loves to take the broken messes of our lives, even the messes that we have created ourselves, and make them beautiful.  He loves to make beauty from ashes. I think it’s His favorite thing to do!  I told him I didn’t know how God might do it, but that we could ask God to help him, to forgive, to heal,  and even to restore Jimmy’s dream life to him.  Nothing is impossible for God.

Jimmy and I both cried a lot of tears, as we prayed together in the noisy bedlam of Joe’s on that Saturday afternoon.  When we finished praying, Jimmy embraced me with a mighty hug and a smile on his face.  I told him, “Let’s watch and see what God will do.”  He took his bags of groceries out the door, and he’s been attending church at Joe’s these last few weeks.

Last year, Lifechurch partnered with Joe’s Addiction to provide a Thanksgiving Dinner for the Valley Brook community.  We hosted the dinner in our Kitchen Table, and about 150 people got to enjoy a tasty, catered turkey meal.

This year, as we began to think towards Thanksgiving, a picture of a large tent with tables under it came to my mind, set up outside where everyone passing by could see and be welcomed to the Thanksgiving Dinner.  A few days into daydreaming this picture, I suddenly remembered that Thanksgiving is in November!!  It would be freezing cold—not tent weather!

Our local leaders and folks from Lifechurch got together to brainstorm and to plan.  We really desired to not only be on the receiving end of this great blessing, but to serve together with the Lifechurch volunteers to bless the Valley Brook community. The food was to be donated by Lifechurch, and a chef at a fancy country club volunteered to cook the meal.

We dreamed up the menu and decided to have regulars at Joe’s volunteer to help with the set-up and clean-up of the dinner, and to wait tables, as we envisioned a nice, sit-down banquet.  One of our leaders mentioned that he wanted to see all the “servers” wearing white, button-down shirts and ties. (I knew that most of them, perhaps none of them, own a white shirt and tie!!——but when you’re brainstorming, no idea is off-limits, right?)  So . . .  I risked sharing my tent vision—which was surprisingly met with affirmations and smiles and a “let’s do it” attitude, coupled with a tentative back-up plan, in case the weather was uncooperative.  I got excited!

As we began to make a list of the volunteer positions we would need to fill and how many people it would take, someone mentioned, “We’ll need a few people to go over to the country club and help with the cooking of the meal.”——Jimmy’s Dream!!  My heart began to pound and tears came to my eyes.  Could it be?

I left our planning meeting, walking down the sidewalk toward Joe’s, and there, coming toward me was Jimmy.  I tried to restrain my enthusiasm, as I didn’t want to risk getting him too excited about the possibility of employment, but I couldn’t help oozing amazement and joy as I told Jimmy of our need for someone to help with the cooking of a gourmet Thanksgiving Dinner.

Jimmy’s mouth dropped open.  Then he said, “Are you kidding me?  Are you kidding me?!  Don’t mess with me!”  I assured him that I wasn’t and asked if he would be willing to assist the chef at the country club.  For a moment, Jimmy stood there silent.  Then a gigantic smile swallowed the lines of Jimmy’s haggard face.  He grabbed me around the shoulders, picked me up and began to sob, “God is giving me back my dream!  He’s giving me back my dream!”

Over the next few weeks, every time I saw Jimmy he asked me, “Now, when is the dinner? What day? What time am I supposed to show up?”  Each time I reminded him, “8 am on Saturday, Nov. 20th.” He asked me so many times, I began to worry that Jimmy might not be all there . . . you know, that he might not remember and show up on the right day.  But then I realized that, no——Jimmy was there.  This is just all that was on his mind.  He was living for the day that he would get to cook, and it was all he wanted to talk about.

The evening before the dinner, our Valley Brook regulars set up the Kitchen Table.  They broke down the children’s classroom spaces, set up tables and chairs.  Then they informed me that we were going to need to have the back-up plan ready, because although the forecasted temperature was looking great, we were expected to have rather high winds, and there would be no way we could set up the tents in the wind.  I responded, “We’ll see.”

The morning of the big day arrived, and when I walked in the door of Joe’s, there was Jimmy——8 am on Saturday, Nov. 20th——pacing around the coffee shop, ready to go.

And the weather? Bright, sunny, warm and no wind!  A large tent housed the food serving trays.  Two other tents covered large, round tables.  The Kitchen Table served as banquet hall, and Valley Brook locals, dressed in white shirts and ties (scavenged from our Free Store) served as hosts and waiters, asking “How many in your party?” to each group that arrived to enjoy the meal—serving plates, filling drinks, delivering pumpkin pie.  We served over 300 people!!

Jesus said, “There was once a man who was giving a great feast to which he invited many people. . . .The master said to his servant, “Hurry out to the streets and alleys of the town, and bring back the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’  Soon the servant said, “Your order has been carried out, sir, but there is room for more.’ So the master said to the servant, “Go out to the country roads and lanes and make people come in, so that my house will be full.

Near the end of the day, as the activity began to diminish and the crowd dwindled, Jimmy returned to Joe’s——sporting a tall, white chef’s hat——and a huge grin on his face.  And——here came Diana (another story of redemption–—she runs our Free Store).  Someone had donated a pile of stuff just that morning, and sorting through it, what had she found?  A clean, white, button-down chef’s coat!!

Sunday morning the sermon was about thankfulness—of course. Each year we celebrate Thanksgiving by writing our thanks on rocks and adding them to the growing pile in the back yard.  It is our Valley Brook version of building an Ebenezer (Joshua 4:1-7)  As we gathered around the rock pile Jimmy came over to me, his head tilted, a thoughtful expression on his face.  He said, “God showed me something this morning during church.” He paused a moment, and then continued, “Even if He never gives me a paid position as a gourmet chef, yesterday He showed me that He loves me by letting me cook again.” Standing next to me there in the yard, Jimmy took a sharpie from my hand and wrote on his rock, “Thank you God for giving me back my dream.”