Every once in a while, I come up with an idea that's good enough to make into a tradition.
For most of the years I've lived in Philadelphia we have enjoyed the help of visiting mission trip teams who have spent themselves and their their ministry budget to assist us in feeding our neighbors. Most Summer Sunday nights for the first decade I lived in Philadelphia were spent with the Adventures In Missions teams preparing plates of hot dogs, chips and cups of cold lemonade to share with the folks up on Kensington Ave. Many of these neighbors-without-houses didn't have other food options within the 24 hour space between the soup kitchens Sunday lunch and Monday lunch meals.
It wasn't just a hand-out dinner to give to some hungry homeless folks. It was dinner for the team as well. While some of the mission trippers took turns grilling hotdogs or refilling cups of lemonade, others received their own plates and sat next to our neighbors on picnic table benches. There is something about sharing a meal together that is a great equalizer and creates meaningful connections. Many of these youth would begin the evening intimidated and feeling worlds apart from our guests. Many would leave at the end of the evening having discovered common ground and seeing their own assumptions about homelessness and addiction shattered.
On occasion Frank still pops in at the Kensington Avenue meal outreaches often with our kids by his side. Teams of volunteers with Cast Your Cares keep those feeding outreaches happening, but it's far more than our family our our small teams could pull off. Becoming a family with young children changed both the scale and the scope of what we were able to do as far as breaking bread with our neighbors. As we began wondering what we could do ourselves, wondering the best way to include our small teams of 8-15 people in our outreach and wondering how to even adapt and re-frame out "outreach" to the growing community of well-to-do folks moving into the neighborhood, we realized that we needed a new approach. If you stand on Kensington Ave and offer, "Hey, free food!" you will draw a crowd. As of late, if you did the same on Fletcher Street you are likely to get mostly strange looks.
Enter my idea worthy of a tradition!
As our focus narrowed to loving and caring for those right on our block and wanting to be able to engage with our neighbors whether we had a team to help us or not the idea of a "Potluck Cookout" began to develop. It started with the help of teams but when it was just us and our neighbors we still filled the tables with food, took up all of the chairs we had and began to get to know each other beyond the courtesy "hellos" as we passed each other on the sidewalk. Now, when the weather turns warm the neighbors will start to ask, "Hey, when will Potluck Cookout start back up?" Tradition established!
On our second Potluck Cookout this summer the table was already filled with hummus and carrots, freshly sliced watermelon and juicy cheeseburgers before our neighbor Kim brought her portion to share. She had visited a farmers' market and brought a large metal bowl filled with plums. After she sat it down she told me, "These are for everyone else but I'll be right back with something else for you." In a few minutes she returned with a fat jersey tomato in each hand. Kim looked me in the eyes with utter seriousness and told me, "This is the best gift that anyone is going to give you all summer." She instructed me to put them inside my house and enjoy them all for myself.
Week after week in July we enjoyed good food and good company as neighbors from our block and friends from all around the community came to add to and enjoy the bounty. For some reason we thought it was a good idea to squeeze in one more Potluck Cookout on the first Tuesday in August before leaving in the wee hours of the next morning for our trip to Vermont. We were bleary eyed from staying up to pack and making the long drive, but it was worth it to arrive in time to enjoy dinner with our Vermont friends. If there is one way that Vermont never fails us it's with good company and delicious food as we gather around the Franklin family dinner table. Beside whatever other culinary wonder Annette prepared for us while we were there we enjoyed some of the tastiest tomatoes I've ever eaten. They reminded me to tell the story of Kim bringing me those two Jersey tomatoes with her bold proclamation of the gift's value.
Honestly, I think those Vermont tomatoes were superior in taste.
Yet, Kim was right.
Her gift of those two tomatoes were in fact the best thing anyone gave me all summer.
If I tell you a little more about Kim, I think you will understand why.
Kim has lived in the house just up the block from us for decades. At times it seemed like there were two different Kims --- the friendly one who chatted with us when we saw her, and the one who was spaced out talking to herself and would walk right past you without acknowledging your existence. It made sense when we learned that she had been battling paranoid schizophrenia for her entire adult life. Her medications usually kept the intrusive voices quiet and she managed amazingly well at independent living in light of her illness. Her daughter Cassie lived with her as well and Cassie's pregnancy with her daughter overlapped with my pregnancy with Callum. Pregnancy, birth and babies almost always open up opportunities for conversations and closer friendships so we got to know Cassie, Kim & Mikayla much better in these past 5 years.
A year after Mikayla was born and a couple years into a great stretch of mental health and with no psychiatric hospital admissions for Kim some bad news came along. Kim was diagnosed with colon cancer which eventually spread throughout her body and into her liver. She spent the entire Christmas holiday in the hospital receiving blood transfusions for some mysterious and dangerous source of blood loss. The time and effort required to care for Kim was more than Cassie could handle on her own so we picked up some slack by keeping Mikayla several days a week until she could afford daycare again and by driving Kim to and from the hospital for treatments. Other neighbors helped by cooking meals. The preschool that our kids were attending let Mikayla come along with them free-of-cost.
On the other side of that particularly rough patch things seems to look up. Despite the fact that liver cancer in particular tends to take people quickly Kim's treatments cleared her liver and kept the other cancer at bay. Mikayla went back to daycare and Cassie got a promotion at work. Cassie dug deep in her dependence upon God and removed herself from a toxic relationship. Kim kept defying the odds and even gave up her 2+ pack a day cigarette habit. Moving along with slow improvement created a comfortable status quo. We enjoyed them as neighbors cared for them but didn't worry intensely about their well-being like we had the year before.
Which is why my mind came up with every excuse I could think of a couple weeks back when we first saw a rescue squad and firetruck then a little later a police cruiser pulled up in front of Kim's house. When the funeral parlor's van showed up a couple hours later there was no denying the truth. Having just chatted with Kim a few days earlier about how she was doing -- "Aw - okay" she told me -- I sat on my steps and wept as I watched the men bring her body out on a stretcher. I cried thinking of Cassie and sweet Mikayla. And I wept for myself because I did really love her. And she had given me the best gift that I would get all summer.
Just a few days later we gathered with other neighbors and friends to celebrate her life at a little church a few blocks away. It was the night before Selah's first day of second grade and we ran around town in pursuit of our own errands. We needed to pick up candles and balloons for Kim's service to add just a little more crazy to the schedule. It honestly felt a little like an obligation by the time the start of the service rolled around. It felt like the right thing to do. But I wasn't particularly looking forward to it. The church where the service was being held had been reduced, in my mind, to "that place where they don't let men in without suits and where all the women wear jean skirts."
I was so wrong. I was so humbled. I was so honored to be there in that place to hear Cassie talk about her mom and to receive the pastor's gracious words about Kim's deliverance into real life --- life free of the pain & agony of schizophrenia and cancer into the glorious presence of God. I wept because of my gratitude that Cassie had a mother like Kim. I laughed because everyone had a story that was classic Kim and reminded me of why I loved talking to her. I got chills as the visiting home nurse who cared for Kim made good on her promise to sing at her funeral and belted out, "His Eye Is On The Sparrow." I call it nothing short of a miracle that Mikayla's father desires to do right for Kim's daughter & granddaughter because he wants to honor her legacy. I listened and recognized what an absolute treasure Kim was, what a gift she was to this earth for the season she inhabited it. I felt peace and deliverance from my own strivings -- all the things that I think are so important and bully me through my days, but that mean nothing once you approach the final threshold of life on earth.
What a privilege to know Kim. What a privilege to witness the testimonies of those who loved her most. Our family has received many generous and valuable gifts this summer -- a lovely print by a mama-to-be artist who was in one of my classes, caring friends pressing cash in our hands, the leaders from one of our mission teams washing our family's feet and praying for us. And yet because I valued her life and because it was the last gift she would ever give me, Kim was right, that those two tomatoes were the best gift that anyone would give me all summer.
Above - Potluck Cookout, Below - Kim's Memorial Service