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Working to end poverty is our response to God’s grace


From a cooler to a communion table, ‘Gott’ saves

By Alonzo Johnson | Presbyterians Today

An orange cooler like the one the writer’s family had when he was a child.

When the utilities in our apartment were cut off due to nonpayment, I already knew the protocol. My mother’s voice would remind me, “Make sure you come right home after school; if your sisters are not home yet, get out the kerosene lamps, light them, etc.” Ice also needed to be obtained for the cooler — a behemoth of orange plastic that served as a mini refrigerator, holding necessities such as milk, eggs, some fruit and any medicine that would have needed to be kept cold. Without power for days — sometimes months — this is how my family survived.

This orange cooler made it possible for us to have eggs, cereal or oatmeal in the mornings and bologna sandwiches for lunch. It was positioned at the center of the kitchen floor or was placed right next to or on the kitchen table so that we could prepare meals.

Odd to me as a teen was the large, ominous brand name etched in white on the side of the cooler that read “GOTT.” Now before you accuse me of product placement, this is not an endorsement for this brand of cooler — as far as I am concerned, all coolers are created equal. This was just what we had at the time.

As a Black teenager living in Newark, New Jersey, having a command of the German language was unsurprisingly not a priority for me. It would be years later that I discovered that “Gott” meant “God” in German. Surveying those tough times in retrospect, I realize now how not only that cooler named “GOTT” saved, but that Gott saved, for it was God’s grace that was active in our lives. That cooler reminds me of how my mother taught me that God’s love was still present in difficult times — it was a symbol of sustenance.

When I think of what I now refer to as “the days of the orange cooler,” I am reminded of God’s presence in other ways: in the love and hospitality of the members of my extended family who would take my sisters and me for a weekend when the weather was cold; in my mother’s “churchy friends” who hugged us and prayed and offered food to get by; in the work of the pastor who offered support through counsel; in the hospitality of my friends’ parents who knew of our situation and provided meals and child sitting instead of gossip.

As Reformed people, when we talk about eradicating poverty — one of the focuses of the call to be a Matthew 25 church — we are talking about an action that is integral to who we are as children of God.

Eradicating poverty is in our historical, theological and confessional DNA. One of the places to explore this is at the Lord’s Table. Participation in the Lord’s Supper charges us to live as Jesus did with great concern for those who are poor and oppressed.

The table is about recognizing God in those gathered with us and who sustain us in times of darkness. It also reminds us that God provides and nourishes us in Jesus Christ, and as believers, we are called to nourish others, which means that as we eat and drink, we must not forget those who are (literally and figuratively) hungry and thirsty.

The sacrament of communion is a time to remember the grace of Christ’s saving act and respond to that grace by taking care of others. It is at the table, too, that we are renewed in our identity and sent to be disciples to do the mission of Jesus Christ, which means that we recognize that the often selfish values of the world are not God’s values.

As Matthew 25 calls us to recognize Jesus in those who are made vulnerable, we are also called to recognize our discipleship in proclaiming justice and bearing witness through direct service and advocacy. We are not just called to feed the hungry, but to get to the root causes of food insecurity and food deserts that make hunger and inequities possible.

In a time of the triple pandemics of COVID-19, racism and poverty, the Lord’s Table in our Reformed understanding reminds us that our faith communities are to become “coolers” — places of sustenance for those who are in need, especially in these unprecedented times. In celebrating God’s sustaining grace, communion also challenges us to be innovative and imaginative in creating spaces of care, showing that the living God in Jesus Christ is still present and active in a time such as this.

Alonzo Johnson is the coordinator for the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People in Louisville.

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