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Spirit Story

Sign language

By Pam Brown

Shaking my head, I gripped the steering wheel tightly and whispered aloud, “What in the world did I get myself into?” Less than a week earlier, I had stood up in church and said, “I’ll do it.”

Rev. Kathy Dahmer was preaching about being the church in the world and connecting with people outside our four walls. During the late June sermon, she held up a cardboard sign — the kind typically associated with a beggar — that read, “I have a job. I have a home. I have a car. I have good health. Would YOU like $ for coffee?”

Kathy began to ponder aloud: “I wonder what it would be like if someone took this sign downtown. I wonder what would happen if someone got some toonies to give out.” I stood up, retrieved the sign and said, “I’ll do it.”

On the 20-minute drive into Sudbury, Ont., from our nearby community, I felt a pang of fear. I prayed God would help me find words to speak, the patience to remain silent and solid footing to stand. My grip loosened.

With the cardboard sign in hand and toonies in my pocket, I stepped onto the sidewalk of a downtown intersection. To my left, two men sat on a bench outside the Salvation Army. Other than the occasional murmur from their conversation, it was quiet. Some passing drivers craned to read my sign; many more avoided eye contact.

Before long, one of the men came over. His weather-beaten forehead wrinkled as he read the sign. His eyes met mine and with a sparsely toothed grin, he asked, “For real, you want to give me money for a coffee?” My smile matched his, and I nodded.

Then it happened: he and I, both exposed and vulnerable, risked entering into relationship. I put a toonie into his hand, and he thanked me. It was only about the money for an instant; the conversation was the rich reward.

He went back to his friend, and I was soon shaking another man’s hand and sharing an exchange. Soon, others came like ants to a picnic. With each encounter, the people shook their head with puzzlement that someone would offer them something. Before long, I was surrounded by people sharing stories of the tough circumstances that had brought them to the street.

The following Sunday, I shared my story with the congregation. Others were inspired to head downtown with toonies and the sign, and they too came back with stories about how it felt to be “the church in the world.” Downtown residents started to recognize us as the “coffee people.” A motorist pulled over and gave us $100 in toonies.

By early August, we recognized that this ministry was really about connecting with people. So we changed the sign to read, “I have time to spend if you have time to spare. Wanna coffee?” Now, every week or so, we set up an urn of coffee, cups, creamers and sugar. Close to 20 church members have volunteered for the coffee ministry, and many more have donated.

Matthew 10:42 says the greatest reward is in the smallest act of giving — even “a cup of cold water.” In my experience, a cup of hot coffee works just as well.

Pam Brown is a manager with the Ontario Ministry of Education. She lives in Lively, Ont., where she’s a member of Trinity United.

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