Early in my tenure at Central Dallas Ministries--it was summer 1994, first week on the job as I recall it--I bought a giant, shiny coffee maker.
I proudly placed my new pot in the middle of our interview room in the Haskell Resource Center, known back then as the "Food Pantry."
As I arranged my new offering to the community on a table, complete with all the coffee fixin's we would need, a long-time volunteer who drove in once a week from outside the community approached me with what I'd call aggressive bewilderment.
"What in the world are you doing?" she asked.
"I'm making coffee for our guests," I replied with delighted excitement.
A frown rushed across her face and stiffened her entire frame.
With a mixture of amazement and anger, she counseled me, "You can't do that! If you make coffee, these people will never leave!"
I informed her that my intention was not to rush people along, but to get acquainted with as many neighborhood residents as possible.
At that, she turned quickly on her heel and strode out of the interview room. Needless to say, as we opened volunteer and leadership positions to the community, she decided not to return.
I've relived that awkward, bewildering encounter again and again across the years.
The attitude back of her comment reveals volumes about one perspective on poverty. It goes something like this:
"Well, 'these people' (I always flinch at that phrase because I know what is coming next) are a real problem. It is our duty to share what we have, but if they were only more responsible, resourceful, not so stupid and lazy and not so dependent, we wouldn't have to feel obligated to be down here at all!"
Talk about joy in one's work!
The most important thing to folks with this attitude is the process, the project, the problem, the procedures and the penance.
My new coffee pot signaled a different set of values and a completely different perspective on life in the city and on poverty.
Our coffee pot values include welcoming people, longing to hear and know people, extending hospitality and receiving wisdom and knowledge from our neighbors.
Our coffee pot screamed to everyone, "Hey, slow down! Have a seat. Tell us your story. In this house you'll find that we really care about you, who you are, what you're dreaming and how we can find our way together."
I love coffee.
The pot's not new anymore, but it cooks a good brew every morning our doors are open.
May it always be so.