In Deuteronomy 24:19-21, the law makes special provision for crops overlooked by harvesters to be left in the fields where they are. Farmers are instructed not to harvest all the way to the edges of their land, so that people who had no crops could find something to eat without having to steal. This provision helps the people of God remember two important things. First, we serve a God of abundance, not scarcity. God can take what we have and make it enough. We don’t have to anxiously hoard. Second, God cares for us and provides for us whether we own land or not. Even if we have no place to lay our heads and no people to call us by name, God sees us and reminds others to do the same. “Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this.” This memory is a whetstone to keep the life of the church from growing dull and a guiding star to keep us pointed in the right direction.
When I first came to this presbytery in 2015, I was a stranger whose only way to eat was to glean around the edges. I bagged groceries to pay bills while I looked for a call. Like Ruth working the edges around Boaz’s fields, I received an early lifeline in the welcome extended by Jesse Swanigan and Bernice Thompson of the Social Witness Team, Erin Counihan and Donna Cook of Oak Hill, Mark Miller of Westminster in St. Louis, Dieter and Renita Heinzl, and the lovely people of Affton Presbyterian Church. I was ordained as an evangelist and was not installed, and I remained bi-vocational until the pandemic began. These grace-filled experiences have given me eyes to see the church as a gleaner and joy to share that perspective wherever I can.
It was a joy to watch Affton embrace the gleaner’s perspective after leaving their building and the mindset of landownership behind. Like parents facing an empty nest, they had to rediscover who they are without the building that had previously taken all of their energy. They stepped out on faith that God is not done with them yet, and they discovered God would still provide sanctuary no matter who owns the land. A church that was displaced from main street moved toward the margins and found a table prepared for them by their Lord. They found a center in service to people who are hungry and in solidarity with people who are in prison. It has been as gleaners, not as owners, that Affton has lived on for the last seven years as a witness to God’s abundant love.
It was a joy, too, to watch DRAWP learn to glean as we picked up what had been left over by faithful hands that had gone before us. People who had never been involved at a presbytery level were invited to join, and when they answered that invitation, they found a team willing to listen to their ideas. Leaving room in our budget and in our agenda for people we did not already know allowed new friendships and partnerships to form. We went to Montgomery together with faith in God’s promise to feed us along the way, and the fruit of those three days continues to feed the team and the presbytery. From history no one wanted to touch but which had been lying in plain sight, we gathered fragments that would become an apology for the sin of slavery and for the church’s complicity in white supremacy. Fighting the temptation to be territorial, the team opened its work to be gleaned by the broader church. Where a few faithful people have led, over one million Presbyterians have now been invited to follow.
Gleaning, not ownership, is the animating force of Hauschurch, too. We exist because we welcome strangers into our houses, because we value what has been overlooked or left to grow around the edges, and because we know the daily bread we share is both sufficient and deeply satisfying. When our members feel overlooked or left behind, we recognize each other’s gifts in God, and no one goes home feeling empty.
The edges of the field are where God’s people have always returned to find new life. Galilee was the margin at the edge of Judea that Jesus called home, and that is where he promised to meet the disciples when he rose from the dead. As more churches face the tough choice to give up their buildings, as more ministry teams welcome voices that have been waiting in the wings, as more congregations remember what it feels like to be a stranger working around the edges, we will see and hear with fresh ears that God is not done with us yet, and there is more than enough to be gleaned.
Rev. John Harrison
Chaplain at Concordance Academy of Leadership