By Amanda Ashcraft
This year we are christening FAPC's annual Christmas dinner with homeless and hungry neighbors as the Joe Vedella Christmas Dinner.
If you have been around this church for a while, I don't need to tell you who Joe was, or why the decision by the Session's Outreach Committee to name the dinner in his honor is so appropriate. But for those of you who didn't know Joe—who don't know how his life saved so many others—let me tell you something about him.
For more than a decade, Joe was the face of FAPC's outreach to the homeless. Working with the late Margaret Shafer, he created the church’s "befriending" ministry, connecting homeless women and men with shelter and social services, often guiding them into transitional or permanent housing.
Working with our volunteers, he offered blankets and morning coffee to the homeless individuals huddled on our front steps night after night. Joe also managed the David B. Skinner Shelter at FAPC, and was a cherished member of this community until his death in 2012. Zach Alspaugh, a former Outreach volunteer, captured Joe's story in a moving documentary, Joe's Coffee Run. You can view it here.
Joe had a special affinity for our neighbors without homes, because he had traveled so much of his life in their shoes. Joe struggled with addiction for most of his life, and was in and out of prison 22 times over a period of 20 years. By the time he achieved sobriety, he had become a member of this church and a part-time member of the staff.
Margaret always credited Joe with teaching us how to reach the men and women on the street. In her foreword to Joe's 2008 autobiography, That's No Story, That's My Life, she wrote:
It was Joe who knew what such people were up against. He had been there. He had learned "the system" the hard way. And he was a natural listener, wise counselor, and patient encourager, as well as a man of deep faith. I heard him say to one of our despondent friends, "Never mind if you don't have any more hope. I have enough for both of us."
On the Sunday afternoon of our annual Christmas dinner, Joe was always there, often in a Santa cap.
Over the years, we have struggled with what to call this particular Christmas tradition, which we have offered now for 18 years. Language, particularly the language of naming, is important. Words must be chosen carefully, and intentionally.
The Committee on Homelessness has learned this by studying difficult, often hard to read texts, such Laura Stiver's Disrupting Homelessness and Letty Russell's Just Hospitality. These texts challenge traditional, one-sided acts of charity, and encourage congregations to see each person as a contributing, valuable member of God's just and compassionate society.
For a long time, we referred casually to our annual event as "Christmas Dinner for the Homeless." But there were problems with this. First and foremost, the word "for" deepened an unnecessary, immoral chasm between our volunteers and our guests. Also, referring to persons without a home as "the homeless" jumbles every individual into one shallow category, when we know that one person who doesn't have a home is not the same as the next.
More recently, in an attempt to be more inclusive, we referred to the event as "Christmas Dinner with Homeless and Hungry Friends and Neighbors." But that cumbersome title never felt right.
And then I remembered Joe.
Joe passed away on the night of the dinner three years ago—Dec. 12, 2012. As Joe suffered from stage 4 lung cancer, a community of more than 200 paused to pray for him as we sat around warm tables, many of us there because of the mark Joe had made on our lives. We liked to think that Joe felt the diverse, deep love pouring into him that afternoon, possibly so much as to allow him a peace to leave his earthly struggle.
That's why it makes sense to simply rename this event, "The Joe Vedella Christmas Dinner." Joe is the person who inspired me, and inspires me still, as I learn from our neighbors without homes. His spirit will forever live within the walls of Bonnell Hall, whenever we gather as brothers and sisters in Christ. His name alone expresses everything that our Outreach ministry aspires to be.
This year's dinner is on Sunday, Dec. 6. If you are interested in serving as a volunteer, drop me a line. Joe will be there, too.