My husband John and I live a few blocks from Patchwork Central near downtown Evansville. Last year during apple season I was raking up apples in front of my house when a big, burly guy with a cigarette dangling from his lips stopped on the sidewalk next to me and said, “Lemme see your rake,” in a tone that suggested he simply wanted to examine my rake more closely.
Confused, I handed it to him.
He turned and without a word continued walking down the sidewalk. I yelled after him, but he didn’t respond.
Who steals a rake?
An hour later, John saw him walking down Washington Avenue a few miles from our house still carrying the rake.
The rake seemed to be gone for good, but then a couple hours later he showed up at our front door to return it. He said thanks and when John asked if he’d gotten good use out of the rake he said he had.
It was so incredibly bizarre in so many ways.
Like a proper parable, there are many readings of the story. In one, it is a story of hospitality and community. This is what we do at Patchwork. Someone. Anyone walks through the doors at Patchwork and asks for something, and more often than not we try to provide it for him or her if we can.
It’s an automatic reaction as illustrated by the request for my rake.
There was a slow-motion moment when I watched my arm automatically extend to offer the guy my rake while my brain overthought it: My rake? Why would you want my rake? Why shouldn’t I give you my rake? What would the guy do with it? He’s still waiting for a response. Is he joking? Hey arm, what are you doing? I’m not sure that is a good idea…
At Patchwork we offer resources to people in a similar way.
- showers for men who’ve lost their privileges at the homeless shelters
- a cup of coffee with a few packets of sugar fished out of somewhere
- a sheet of tin foil
- a food order from the food pantry for the family of 9 whose head of household comes in right before we close and without the correct paperwork
- a cake for the children’s program’s biggest bully when she pounds on the door that’s locked because we’re closed on the Friday before Memorial Day
- green tomatoes to the nameless people who excitedly pick them from our garden because you can’t buy them in the store, but look! Patchwork actually grows green tomato plants!
- a bike seat for the woman who has scammed Patchwork before but who shows up in the parking lot with a seat-less bike as her transportation
- respect and conversation for someone angry and frustrated
- a piece of art for a child to take home so she can give her mother something beautiful
- joy and safety for a child in a circle of other children and adults listening to a story about the sunshine and rain and getting sprayed with water from a squirt bottle
- a parent at our Back to School sale who can get some school supplies for her family without having to prove her low income or to drag her children out of bed to prove they exist
Of course, by offering we open ourselves up to an element of risk—as in the Parable of the Rake. Giving to others is a risk. Once you give something, you lose control over that thing and how the recipient uses it or even how the recipient receives it.
In the act of giving, there exist both joy and fear. You may feel your gift is misused. Or stolen. Or not properly appreciated. The gift could inadvertently make a bad situation worse. Or only offer a surface solution that doesn’t address the larger societal forces that created the need.
Or it could be just what someone needed. It could return in the end with value added, like a story.
There is a risk in what we do at Patchwork, but this risk is inherent in our mission. In risking, we draw together and create interdependencies. We learn. We—as Patchwork’s official tagline reminds us—Create Community.
As some of you may know, the concept of community was integral to Patchwork since its beginning 35 years ago. It was founded as an intentional Christian community by six individuals who sought to live in community in the inner city and serve the neighborhood where they lived.
Many things have changed since then. The founders have all moved onto other work, many additional people have come and gone and Patchwork’s programming has changed with them, the neighborhood has changed, Patchwork has become grounded in our building on the corner of Sixth and Washington.
But, the concept of community continues on, existing simultaneously in multiple ways.
We still have a Covenant Community—a group of people associated with our Sunday evening worship and the official body that, up until about 10 years ago, was responsible for running the day-to-day operations of Patchwork. The group remains as some of Patchwork’s core supporters as well as strong support for each other.
Among Patchwork’s staff there is a sense of community—a sense of being more than just co-workers, of supporting each other through sometimes difficult and sometimes joyous life journeys. They are a community that is there for each other when the work gets difficult—when a kid who’d finally come around and opened up has to move to Atlanta with his mother while she looks for work or when someone comes into the main office extremely agitated.
There is community between parents and the staff of the children’s program as they work together to teach children and celebrate successes. There is community among people visiting our building—catching up with an old friend as they wait for food from the food pantry. There is community among our volunteers as they visit with each other while they go about their work. There is a sense of community by our consistent presence on the same corner as buildings become vacant or are knocked down elsewhere around us.
With these definitions of community, I must offer the disclaimer that they come from my own experience of community at Patchwork and are influenced by my place in its timeline. I first arrived at Patchwork in 1997, right out of college and ready to work in the children’s program. I also became involved with Patchwork’s Covenant Community then. I have only heard stories about the Community in the early days. Others at Patchwork have been present for more or less of its history. Everyone has their own experience of it.
Community at Patchwork remains difficult to define, especially for me as a single Community member. It exists on so many different levels, among so many different people. Giving and taking. Risking. Building community.