Two hundred unexpected guests were about to arrive, and we didn’t know where to put them. Or how we would feed them. The small church in downtown Rahway, where I was the pastor, served a hot lunch to more than 100 people each week, but three meals and overnight lodging for this many was a challenge of a different magnitude.
“We can do it!” declared the enthusiastic church member who had invited the group. We could, we’d soon discover, but only with the help of the whole town.
Our visitors were part of the Poor People’s March of the Americas, which made headlines in the fall of 1999 as part of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign. In early October, men, women and children from across the United States, Canada and Central and South America assembled in Washington, D.C. Guided by several human rights groups, they prepared a petition about the problems of the poor to present to the United Nations. Then they set out to deliver it in person, walking all the way to New York.
With only two days to prepare, church members and I took to the phones. The Rahway Police Department agreed to meet the marchers at the city line and guide them safely to us. City Hall said it would let marchers put up tents on municipal property across from the church. The fire department offered shower facilities, as did the YMCA. Other houses of worship of various denomination contributed food and cooks.
Somehow it worked. The marchers arrived, and 230 people were served shepherd’s pie. Parents bathed small children in bathroom and kitchen sinks—breaking all sorts of codes. Guests and hosts put together an impromptu celebration. In the church sanctuary, several marchers told their personal stories, while someone signed for the deaf and others translated from Portuguese to Spanish and from Spanish to English. We sang “Amazing Grace” and “We Shall Overcome” in three languages, accompanied by guitar and mandolin. Then people bedded down for the night—in the pews, on Sunday-school-classroom floors, on the church lawn and across the street.
When we learned the next day that problems on the marchers’ route required that they stay another night, the community came through again. Dunkin’ Donuts sent over day-old muffins. Neighbors brought blankets. A friend who had lived in Mexico, appalled that we planned to serve cold cereal for breakfast, swooped in and cooked a regiment-sized meal of rice and beans. When the marchers finally left, neighbors gathered to applaud and wave them on their way. They arrived November 1 at the U.N. with the rest of the marchers, petition at the ready.
I wonder if such hospitality would be offered now anywhere in America. With our post-9/11 wariness of strangers and current political animosities, would a ragtag crowd of outsiders be welcomed and cared for by any community? Yet in the not-so-distant past, an ordinary town in New Jersey saw only tired and hungry people who needed what the community had to give. And they gave it.
Helen Beglin is the former pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church in Rahway. She lives in Rahway.Click here to leave a comment