Convention center dinner in a windowless room or service and relationship building in the streets?

Two years ago, Tony Aja and the leadership of the Hispanic/Latinx National Presbyterian Caucus had a vision. Aja is the moderator of the Hispanic/Latinx National Presbyterian Caucus and pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Their vision was to get out of the convention hall and into the streets at the 222ndGeneral Assembly in Portland, Oregon. Rather than having a traditional caucus dinner in the convention center or hotel ballroom, Aja found a local organization to volunteer with. The members of the caucus decided to sponsor a mission service project at a Portland homeless shelter.

This was such a successful and meaningful event that they took the same spirit to the 223rdGeneral Assembly in St. Louis and planned another evening of service in lieu of a hotel or conference room dinner. This idea fit perfectly into the larger theme of the General Assembly and the “Hands and Feet” initiative.

Snow cones

Members of the caucus reached out to a St. Louis organization called Churches on the Streets. This organization sets up “family dinner outreach” events every week in parks adjacent to housing projects. At these events, volunteers and staff of the organization gather to feed their neighbors a hot meal, give out clothing, and other seasonal needs, and to share a word and prayer with them.

Dozens of volunteers from the Hispanic/Latinx caucus and other commissioners and guests of the General Assembly showed up to partner with dozens of local volunteers. When they arrived at the park they were greeted by Ralph and Angela Valdes, the leaders of Churches in the Streets. Angela provided an orientation to the volunteers and then assigned them to various tasks. There were trucks lined up with donations of clothing and nonperishable food that were unloaded and laid out on tables to be shared with the neighbors. In addition to the clothes, there was a snow cone station with brightly colored flavorings that brought a smile to many happy children and adults. There were coolers full of chilled bottled water being handed out by volunteers on a hot night. There was also a taco truck from a local business called Locoz Tacoz that was contracted by Churches in the Streets to provide a hot meal to all gathered.

Angela Valdes

A torrential summer rainstorm swept through the park in the middle of the event. People ducked under trees and awnings, laughing and conversing together.

Beyond the goods that were distributed, relationships were built — relationships between the local volunteers and the General Assembly participants and relationships between the volunteers and the neighbors who were being served. The volunteers were able to get a better sense of the local community context in St. Louis, particularly in the neighborhoods directly surrounding the convention center.

Serving with a local community partner instead of having a dinner in a hotel ballroom is a manifestation of the Matthew 25 vision that has been articulated throughout the 223rd General Assembly, and is a faithful expression of the “Hands and Feet” initiative being lived out during this assembly.