Chocolate galore.

Chocolate galore.

A friend of mine was going through a healthy season last season.

One Saturday afternoon, as she was moving house and packing her stuff (all her stuff), she invited a couple of girlfriends over to put everything into boxes, chat and indulge in a couple of glasses of wine and homemade food.

The recipe du jour was homemade chocolate mousse. While I cannot remember the exact ingredients that my friend had used, I do remember that I was taken with the lushness of it all and immediately registered it as a favourite.

I have since made this recipe a couple of times mixing the ingredients I recalled my friend had used and – it turns out – adding a personal touch, too.

This is how I now make raw vegan chocolate mousse:

  • Firstly crush two ripe avocadoes
  • Secondly mix the crushed avocadoes with cocoa powder
  • Thirdly add honey to sweeten as preferred
  • Fourthly (optional) serve with strawberries

The Soup Kitchen Sanctuary.

The Soup Kitchen Sanctuary.

Some line up as early as six o’clock in the morning no matter what time of the year it is, even though the doors open at same time every week and there is always more than enough food to be had. Still, they come – little old ladies with grocery carts, middle aged men. Black, white, Asian, Latino, Christian, Muslim, non-religious, they come rain or shine to The Father’s Heart Ministries to get unlimited breakfast and bags of groceries and produce, lining up under the old neon cross that reads “Jesus Saves”. That cross, like another, more famous New York City beacon, welcomes the tired and the poor, those that many in the city might consider “wretched refuse”. Yet, every week a multitude of “guests” wait to enter the church’s old sanctuary to join the feast prepared for them. But those guests are not the only ones who come to Father’s Heart each week. Hundreds of volunteers from all over New York City and even the country vie for spots to serve that there is a waitlist to give up a Saturday morning to work in the soup kitchen or food pantry.

I was one of volunteers. For 15 years (with maybe a few breaks in between), until I moved to Washington DC, I would rise bleary-eyed to spend my Saturday morning assembling and giving out bags of groceries or waiting tables or helping out with the GED class. In the spirit of full disclosure, my parents founded Father’s Heart and continue to run it. One might say that this essay is unfairly biased, that it is “advocacy”. But if that same “one” knows anything about pastors’ or ministries’ kids, you’d also know that we’re often the biggest critics of our parents’ work. So when I say that this is the most authentic experience of Christianity I’ve ever had, you know it’s true. For the past 17 years, nearly every Saturday morning, Father’s Heart has opened its doors to serve the Alphabet City neighbourhood of Manhattan (and beyond) through a soup kitchen, food pantry, GED, ESL, and computer classes, and legal services. In an hours and a half, over 700 people are served an all-you-can-eat breakfast in the church’s sanctuary, where instead of pews you find tables and chairs prepared for their guests.

Every Saturday morning, Pastor Chuck (my dad) provides an orientation for volunteers by describing this scenario: you find a $100 bill on the ground and it is dirty and crumpled and torn in places. Yet despite its appearance, it’s value never diminishes. Like those $100 bills, the guests who arrive each week are image bearers of God and therefore immensely and infinitely valuable. And must be treated by every volunteer as such, To paraphrase the words of Jesus, when you feed the hungry, when you care for the “least” of his brothers or sisters, you are serving Christ himself.

For those who volunteer regularly, who week after week welcome these guests, a curious thing starts to happen in that soup kitchen sanctuary. As each guest is treated with dignity, grace, and the Father’s Heart “unconditionals” – love, acceptance, commitment, and forgiveness – the often patronizing narrative of “helping those less fortunate” shifts. Volunteers, many of whom are among the most fortunate in New York City in terms of education and opportunities, begin to see their own spiritual poverty and need of the unconditionals.

Despite the lack of pews and ornate decor, that sanctuary filled with tables, chairs, eggs, and coffee is a holy place. It is a temple where the Divine meets its creation and a holy drama is enacted. Theologian Michael Horton said at the 2012 Mockingbird conference, “when you live in a world of fear and scarcity, you demand things of the people around you. The God we need is a liberal* God, a God of abundance. The kingdom of heaven is a feast.” Christians look forward to the day when all will be made right in the world, when heaven will once again come down to earth. Then sisters and brothers from every tribe and nation will join together in a feast, the “marriage supper of the Lamb”. Each Saturday, volunteers and guests alike get a taste of that meal. As Jesus is incarnated in the guests, when we feed even the least among us, likewise Jesus is incarnated in the volunteers.

Through preparing and serving meals, through giving out groceries, through offering prayer, counsel, and services, each volunteer is the hands, feet, and face of Christ to the guests. Just as Jesus laid aside his glory and honour to serve humanity, volunteers are given the rare opportunity to serve in a world that prefers to cater to the “greatest” among us. And just as God prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies, so every volunteer is given the ministry of preparing a table in the presence of the poverty, injustice, fear, and marginalization that beset our guests. It is no small wonder why there is a waiting list to serve.

Under the neon cross that proclaims “Jesus Saves”, guest and volunteer are equal in the eyes of God. Each Saturday they are invited to partake in a holy meal and foretaste of heaven. “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb. These are the true words of God.” (Revelation 19:9)

*Used in the sense of generosity, not political ideology.

(This article is) Written by Juliet Vidral. Juliet is The Wheelhouse Review’s Founder and Executive Editor. Juliet also contributes to Sojourners, where she writes pop-culture-ridden posts about faith. But if you don’t have a long attention span, just follow her on Twitter.

**I volunteered at the Father’s Heart Ministries in New York from September 2016 to February 2017.

The Slaves We Do Not See.

I am riding the bus to see my friend in Virginia on a Wednesday evening. I look outside the window, from the safety of my seat, and see towns, supermarkets, and houses disappear in the night. The bus keeps driving and will arrive at its destination in an hour and a half; my friend will be waiting to pick me up. We will drive to her apartment in a beautiful and rustic two-floor American country house, go to sleep, wake up and sip our coffee in the morning. On Sunday, I will get on the same bus and return to New York and to the coziness of a warm bed in a welcoming and very friendly apartment.

Other people who are in transport at this very moment are not as lucky. They travel against their will, beaten, drugged, afraid and shocked, to a destination that they don’t know. Their papers and all of their belongings will be taken away from them. They will be locked in a dark and small room; chained to their bed; drugged and beaten again, until all form of human opposition, resistance and self-esteem is destroyed.

What follows is abuse after abuse; rape after rape; day after day; sometimes year after year, until their body breaks down and they break down with it and die. The babies born into this world, because life still appears, are sold into the market for beggars, child labour, child sex or organ harvesting.

This is the world of human trafficking or human slavery, the third most lucrative trade in the world after arm dealing and drug trafficking, according to the organization Segura. Slavery generates $150 billion for traffickers each year; ranging between 21-36 million, the number of slaves in the world is today the highest it has ever been. Nearly 1 in 3 detected victims of slavery is a child. There are many branches to human slavery; most often these include prostitution, child sex, pornography, organ harvesting, forced labour and servitude.

The supply markets are typically in the East and range from India and Thailand, to the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Russia; the Western world is also a supplier to this trade. The demand is global.

It is confounding that human trafficking has a place in our world today. Our time is largely characterised by the freedom to pursue one’s dreams and goals, economic development, access to technology and connectivity. However, human trafficking paradoxically exists in the shadow, in an organized and coordinated way. As unthinkable as it sounds, people are being trafficked in New York this very moment, in places that are right under our nose.

I have tried to wrap my head around what drives human trafficking. Fundamentally, I think it is the perception that human beings are disposable and perishable goods; it is the belief that they may be objectified and commoditized for instant gratification and profit; it is the lack of understanding of the uniqueness, fragility and sacredness of the human soul.

It is very difficult to summarize human trafficking, find a solution for it, erase it off the face of the earth and in this case wrap up with a suitable call to action. However, this is what I believe we can individually do to make a collective difference and put a dent in it.

Awareness of human trafficking is the first and most important step, as many times we cannot see what happens in the shadow and do not know what goes on behind the shiny windows we innocently pass by every day; reflection on what drives human trafficking and the traumas that it creates is the second; given the gut-wrenching impact that it has when we reflect on it, the suitable course of action is perhaps best directed by the parts of us that are most stirred by it.

If the injustice stirs you, petition the local government to tighten up the legislation, prosecute traffickers and raid places known as trafficking hubs. If the fact that it destroys lives bothers you, seek out the NGOs that fight human trafficking and understand the type of help they need to fight it harder.

If this is the first time human trafficking has reached you, the CNN is currently running the Freedom Project. A source of awareness and information on human trafficking, its many facets, survivors and the people who fight it.

(Delivered as 3rd speech at Toastmasters, New York, February 2017)