If you know David well at all, you know about his love for people lingering in the margins of society. When I met him in college he was sharing his story of freedom from a life of drugs and violence and his hope in Christ with prison inmates. When we did youth ministry, he reached out to all the students, but always moved first to the outsider, that kid on the fringe dressed in all black with chains or the one who was too shy to navigate the complexities of high school social dynamics or the one who routinely got wasted on the weekends.
He spent his first year of church planting showing up at a crisis pregnancy center downtown to hang out with boyfriends of women who came in for a free ultrasound. Who thinks to do that? Who thinks about those men except maybe to judge them?
This is one of the reasons I fell in love with my husband: he sees people no-one else sees. And many people don’t even know this about him because he doesn’t broadcast it. It’s just who he is.
Anyway, when we got married David was asked to lead a weekly Bible study at a halfway house in Columbia for military veterans trying to get back on their feet after prison and/or addiction recovery. I was all for him doing this: I expected nothing less from the man I married.
However, after a couple weeks of teaching David told me, “I want to start inviting these guys for dinner after Bible Study.”
Here’s the thing: I had never really done mercy ministry before. I wasn’t accustomed to mixing and mingling with this demographic — and all men at that. But those weren’t even the things that bothered me, honestly they weren’t.
The truth was I was scared stiff of hosting a bunch of strangers in my tiny home, of cooking dinner for them (what do they like to eat?), of trying to fit around our dime-sized kitchen table, and most of all, of trying to make conversation. What could we find to talk about? What if I brought up a topic that made them sad? It was the possibility of awkward silences that scared me most.
But I gathered my courage and said, “Okay,” and so began one of the best experiences of our first year of marriage. On Monday evenings David drove two miles downtown to teach the Bible, and I bustled around our kitchen. I hated cooking back then and scrambled for ideas to feed a group. I made a whole lot of spaghetti. Also a potato chicken curry dish with packaged curry paste. I think that was about the extent of my repertoire.
At 6:30 David would show up with a group of 3-4 men, some black, some white, some young and some old. I never really knew who he’d show up with. Yes, there were awkward times. Yes, I didn’t always know what to say. But my stereotype was rocked by the demeanor of these men. Endlessly respectful and nice, they ate my feeble attempts at food, they stood at my sink and washed dishes, they shared their stories with us. Heart-breaking stories that left a hole in my heart most evenings.
These were broken men. Men with regrets. Men who looked at me and said, “I wish my daughter talked to me but I messed it all up,” or who looked at David and said, “Treat your wife good; I had a wonderful wife but I was a bad husband to her. She deserved so much better.”
These men began to teach me how to be a listener. They taught me how to treat people’s stories with dignity and respect. Everyone deserves to be heard, no matter what they’ve done. Everyone deserves to be treated like a human being, to be served a hot meal and to sit around a table and to be seen.
Some of them told David later that they’d never set foot in a white person’s house before. Few if any had sat and eaten a meal with a family in years.
These men taught us honesty. Almost every single one of them had failed in big ways. And if there’s one thing they’d learned, it was that they were a mess. As I listened to their stories there was a stirring in my own heart, a whispering that said, It is good and right to take off your mask. Be honest. That’s the only way you’ll learn to be free.
It would take several more years before I had the courage to start repenting of my self-righteousness and owning up to the depth of my own sin and brokenness, but this was a glimmer of new life.
These friends also taught us that the way to love someone is not to avoid broaching the subject of their pain. The way to love is to walk right into the thick of it. To say, “What’s it like for you?” To shut our mouths against judgment or moralistic advice. An authentic desire to sit and listen to people’s stories is a gift and, like hospitality, it’s also a skill anyone can learn.
When I was 22 years old I thought I was doing a good deed by opening my trailer to homeless men. But of course, as is usually the case when we serve, it was I who needed them. They opened my eyes to a part of society I honestly never thought about. They made me grateful for my eyesore single-wide mobile home because I had a home. They started David and I on a journey of praying for racial reconciliation and pursuing mercy ministry.
This year, a few months after Columbia Pres started worship services, the new director of this same halfway house asked David to be a guest speaker. So he went and taught the Bible one night and connected with a group of men, and then several of them showed up at our church that Sunday morning, which is right in their neighborhood. Several have been coming ever since and this month two of the men stood up before the church to become members.
John Paulling is our new assistant pastor at CPC and one of his roles is to connect with this ministry. He and David and another guy from church teach from time-to-time, hang out, and mentor guys. In turn, the men there jump in and serve by coming early Sunday mornings to set up chairs, make coffee, and greet people walking in the door. They’re part of our family now, which is just how it should be.
Recently some of us from church showed up to serve dinner at the halfway house. I brought the kids, and when we walked in the door, my heart felt peaceful and happy and right at home. I wasn’t afraid of awkwardness. I wasn’t intimidated by big burly men who’d done time. I thought, This is exactly where I want to be right now.
And as we all sat and ate pizza and Greek salad, someone tapped me on the shoulder, “Are you Julie Gentino?” “Yes,” I responded. He smiled, “Wow, that’s great! Big Mike talks about you all the time!”
I looked at him blankly and said, “Oh yeah?” thinking, Who is Big Mike? “Yes! He loved coming to your house for dinner.”
Coming to my house for dinner? That was 10 years ago.
And so Big Mike, who now works security for the ministry, was fetched right then and there, and came in the dining hall and gave me a huge hug. I could’ve cried I was so humbled by God’s goodness, stretching out across 10 years and bringing blessing in a way David and I could never have imagined.
Of course I couldn’t have possibly seen that when we started. But I’m so glad that we started.
Now we once again have men over for dinner. I’ve learned a few things about hospitality, and cooking for a group has become a joy. I still sometimes get intimidated, wondering if people will like my food. But mostly I just let the dishes stack up in the sink, pull up a chair, and sit down to chat and listen.
Now David and I say the words out loud, “Thank you for being honest. Our church needs to learn from your honesty. We need you.”
I believe that in the ministry of hospitality, everyone wins.