Why Meeting Ground?

Sometime back around 1979 or 1980, as the country made the transition from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan, I talked with Marsha, my wife, about a plan I was hatching in my mind: a proposal to launch an idea called Meeting Ground. It was fundamental to my thinking that having an inspiration was not much good without a place: real people meeting real people. I had picked Proverbs 22:2 as a brief way to express what the place would be about and put it on our first stationery: Rich and poor have this in common: The Lord is the Maker of them all. Marsha, our two-year-old daughter Alessandra, and I literally pulled up stakes in Massachusetts, where I was pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Springfield, and relocated to Elkton, Maryland, the place we chose to begin.

It was all tough in those early days: not much came easily, but it was also so very exciting to be able to make a dream come true; we seemed to be living an imagination. There was no money. Marsha and I had just moved and were doing everything we could to keep body and soul together. There were lots of doubts and, from the very start, organized opposition: from churches, the neighborhood and the town. But always the biggest hurdle was keeping the integrity of the vision strong.

So followed the better part of three decades—30 years of one problem after another, and usually many more than one. We never had everything we needed. We never had a lot of money but we never had any debt either. There were plenty of heartbreaks. It all survived and hung together, God alone knows how, and every year we increased what we did as a community. Besides Meeting Ground there was Friendship House, The Border Outreach Project (the grandfather of BorderLinks), Settlement House, Elkton Community Kitchen, and my great love, Loaves and Fishes, Meeting Ground’s bi-monthly newspaper.

Marsha and I didn’t really start out as partners in the work. She was skeptical about its success in the beginning and especially sure it would be a short-lived flop if we would try to do it together. Well… Marsha and I had our problems (we were married, weren’t we?), but somewhere along the way we learned the secret of working together, and of everything that happened with Meeting Ground, I’m most of most proud of that. The promise we made to each other when we were married on June 10, 1973 that we would build a home in which no one would ever be a stranger. We did accomplish that, a little – with a huge amount of help.

To all those who believed the dream with us and endured our faults and stood by when things weren’t going so well, and understood when we didn’t – I owe a debt impossible to repay. Except to remember the many joys of those to whom, in some small way, we were a lamp, a bridge, and a shelter in the storm: even as they were the same to us. And to all who worked so hard with us to achieve the dream – paraphrasing the words of Theodore Roosevelt: It is not the critic who points out where the doers of deeds could have done better: the credit belongs to those actually in the arena, whose faces are marred with dust and sweat, who strive valiantly, who err and come up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming but who know the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spend themselves for a worthy cause; who, at the best, know, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if they fail, at least they fail while daring greatly…

Many have asked what I’m doing now. Am I retired? Well, I never intended to ‘retire’ from Meeting Ground. It has been, and the idea continues to be, my life. In 2010 I had the bright idea to save Meeting Ground money by taking my income from retirement sources rather than a salary. But like a lot of my brilliant schemes, it didn’t work out quite the way I planned. Once it was announced, people just assumed that I was indeed retired—but, sadly, that’s not what I intended and it turned out to be more of a self-fulfilling destiny.

Also, I never seemed to learn the important lesson that guiding the ideals and shepherding the integrity of a community is one thing; administering an institution is another. I’ve always approached all that naively, but I should have known better. Some lessons are just hard for me to learn and I’m not sure I’ve learned that one even yet. I always assumed that everyone would just work together like one big loving family. But enough people have been hurt over the years in the process of running that big happy family.  It’s sometimes like a showdown at the OK Corral: what is assumed to be sound administration versus the messy tumoil of an idea trying to be sincere and real. Meeting Ground has always been to me a crucible of relationships among people struggling to find themselves in the chaos of homelessness and, at the same time, all of us searching for the path to love each other in spite of everything… When the smoke cleared during the summer of 2011, I found myself in a place I never dreamed I’d be: outside my own beloved Meeting Ground.

That’s where I am now. But the ideal is also the story of my life and I will continue to pursue it especially now in writing – but, of course, I can never stop the doing: trying ways to make it real. Marsha knew that about both of us: it was impossible not to do. In the beginning I realized it too, but she always had a firmer grip on the reality of it all: a table, a powerful symbol of community, around which anyone and all would be welcome, and there rich and poor, homeless and housed, could meet together.  And that’s the reason why it was impossible for Meeting Ground not to be.

Thank you all, dear friends.

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