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Monday, November 1, 2010

WOW! imagine/Northampton's First Halloween Hospitality Event.


Last year on Halloween, Karen Bayne took her kids around Main Street with her mom, Linda. They stopped at our apartment. In the course of chatting for a minute, Linda asked if I noticed which buildings were "dark" on Main Street. Apart from the County Courthouse and banks, I noticed the churches were. She noted all the kids and families out and going into local businesses for a treat, and it was a missed opportunity to connect with folks who've stayed away from churches.

I didn't forget what she said.

It was crystal clear to me Halloween was a wonderful opportunity to connect with these folks and help them be exposed to imagine/Northampton. Over the months since having our new space more than one person mentioned "they had never heard of us." So here was an amazing chance to change that, and what better way than with kids and families out for some fun together. We weren't championing Halloween; we were merely connecting with new people and blessing them.

None of us had any idea what would transpire. We figured maybe, just maybe 70 people might climb our 22 stairs for a treat. We also thought all the merchants participating in handing out treats would make it a special experience in some way - not merely hold out a bowl of candy - so we wanted it to be as well done.

We put our heads together to figure what would enhance people's experience and help them remember us. Karen suggested we take pictures of the kids in their costumes for free.  We asked and Nate, a professional photographer and with his wife, Ashley, would take care of the "photo op."  We'd also give kids a small bag of candy. For the adults, we'd offer hot cider, coffee, pumpkin muffins and apple cider donuts. The day before, Matt B., Tricia, and Kait (a student from UMASS/Amherst) carved elaborate designs in pumpkins for the kids to look at. Jen and Amy would help kids make things at a crafts table we set up. Tricia did a wonderful job pulling it all together logistically, and setting up the space.We thought all of it would keep their interest and make it fun without having to slow their pace in town.

A nice thing about the event was that it was something we could get everyone on our team involved in and include some friends as well. This event was really the first of its size we'd done. In September, we had a successful poetry event which required less help. As it turned out, yesterday we needed everybody.

Well . . .talk about God doing far more than we imagined. WOW!

The doors were supposed to open at noon, but we figured no one would really be out then, and planned to open at 2PM. It was supposed to go to 5PM. By 1:15 or so we had to open the doors because families and kids were already all over Main Street. We opened the doors and for the next three and a half hours watched a steady stream of kids and parents. We were slammed at times with lines of folks heading up the the stairs and down the stairs at the same time. The costumes were great. The atmosphere was festive and fun. There was all sorts of energy in what was happening. We resonated with it.

Matt , Jim and I manned the front door telling people what was available to them. They were curious. I heard a few say, "What is that place upstairs?" Sometimes they came in clusters. Karin and Tricia would be at the top of the stairs greeting and directing traffic, handing out candy, and replenishing the food and drink table.

We figured based on how many pictures were taken, and how much food we went through we had between 200 and 250 people. Three or four times, someone had to dash out to get more cider, donuts and candy, lots of it. We even had to get more photo paper after we went through the initial 180 photos we had paper for. Nate took pics non-stop for the afternoon. In spite of that, there were no serious delays and we didn't have to say, "Sorry folks, we're out of that," or "We can't offer any more photos today."

We found out that people were telling others to go to the place where kids were getting free photos, and because it was so cold, hot cider and coffee. Jim and Matt took their kids around the circuit, and we found out that no one was doing anything beyond giving them a piece of candy. What we thought would the norm and did accordingly, turned out to be far beyond what others were doing. In fact, people thanked us for being so "generous" and "kind." A number of parents said the hospitality we offered was the best of the day. Many couldn't believe we were giving away professional-quality photos, and they loved the imagine space itself. People actually hung around so that it was like a "warming" center. One woman joked, "She wasn't leaving." There were all sorts of thank you's.

Perhaps what was most heartening was that we had a number of inquiries about "what is this place?" or "What is imagine/Northampton?" It gave us the opportunity to say we are a church. There were all kinds of responses from: "Oh, really?" to frowns or questions. The questions gave us the chance to talk about what we do and what why we are here. They made us get to the essence because people up here are often very skeptical about the church, even antagonistic. I found myself, when asked what was our "ideology," boiling it down to: "Loving Jesus and loving and serving people." There were some folks who took our literature. Many were surprised we are a church, and some were surprised we were offering hospitality on a day like Halloween. Churches don't do that (unless it's a Harvest Party).

We'd been praying God would connect us with a few folks who don't know him even if that meant simply being Jesus-followers by offering hospitality and helping parents with their kids have a nice day. I think God graciously let us do that and let the name imagine/Northampton stand out yesterday. We challenged some stereotypes simply by being gracious, warm-hearted and kind. It takes more than that to open someone to see Jesus, but I think we made more progress yesterday in Northampton than in the 2+ years since we've been here. We had no idea it would happen that way. God did it, plain and simple.

After we closed up shop, we shared a meal as a team and enjoyed together what God had done. We all knew something substantial occurred. For me, sitting there and eating with everyone was beautiful. I was glad to be associated with each person in the room. They did a wonderful job with grace and generosity.

I earnestly hope this is just the beginning of all sorts of things God will have us do together in Northampton and with people we don't know yet.

Later as Jim and I were taking out garbage to be disposed, we both said almost simultaneously "This is what it's about." - connecting with people, loving and serving them in the hopes they open to Jesus and his Kingdom.

I rarely say "wow," but this was definitely a "WOW!"
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