By Grayson Hester
It has never been about the food.
When Jesus, as portrayed in the Gospel of Luke, instructs his hearers to invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” to their luncheons or banquets, it isn’t about the food.
It is about the invitation itself, the dignity inherent in having been invited. It’s about the community.
In a similar way, the McCreary County Senior Citizen Center’s regular “nutrition bingo” isn’t a resident favorite because of the game, or even the valuable information it provides. (Although, let’s be honest, both sound great.) It’s not even because of White Flag Ministry founder and CBF Field Personnel Scarlette Jasper’s nutritional knowledge or ebullient bingo barking skills.
“One of the things I just think is important is, when we were able to do our groups in nutrition bingo, it was more than nutrition bingo,” Jasper said. “We were able to do a devotion and pray together.”
Or, as Kimberly Waters, the director of the McCreary County, Ky., senior center and friend of Jasper, frames it: “It’s not just the programs. It’s not just the resources. It’s that connection, that love of people. And I feel like we have that toward each other as a friendship.”
If bingo is about waiting patiently but working actively towards a goal – listening closely for the right number, stamping that card with near-evangelical fervor, hoping that things work out in your favor – then it’s no wonder that a surprise friendship was born there.
On Waters’ end, she has been doing the hard part, the patient part, for more than 13 years.
“I was born [in] McCreary County and I have lived here all my life,” she said. “I have been director for almost 13 years. We are a small community. The seniors and the center are a big part of this community, and so I’m very blessed and thankful to have this position.”
She knows this rural Kentucky county about as well as anyone, seeing clearly both its beauties and its burdens, its needs and its assets. The grand beauty of its environs, which include the Big South Fork and Cumberland Falls, seems to bring into sharper relief the abject poverty of many of its citizens, contrasting a God who endlessly provides for their creation with a system that long ago threw up its hands. “The challenges I’ll start with are that it is, of course, a poor community. Poverty level is high. Jobs are scarce. There are not a lot of outside activities for our youth,” Waters said. (In other words, it would be difficult to throw a banquet without inviting the poor.)
These needs press on Waters each and every day; they are relentless and they are ubiquitous.
“Yeah, the need is very great. It absolutely is. And it’s not in one place. It’s everywhere,” Waters said. “It’s with the homeless. It’s with lack of food. It’s with the absence of shelter. It’s so many different needs out there that one person can’t do it all. It takes everyone to do that.”
The White Flag Ministry endeavors to meet the needs of unhoused people, while the senior citizens’ center takes care of the elderly who are so often targets of neglect or abuse.
Fortunately, in places like McCreary County, where material resources have been, through neoliberal government policy and corporate disinvestment, made scarce, community resources are all the more abundant for it. “It’s a very supportive place. Whether it’s in good times or bad times, we have a lot of different programs that we can pull in that help the seniors; but the community as a whole is one,” Waters said. “And I feel that strongly.”
Indeed, for about as long as Waters has worked at the senior center, she has enjoyed significant and, at times, life-changing support. She first met Jasper when the center hosted its first nutrition program almost 12 years ago, launching a friendship that, over a decade later, still burns bright.
It bears repeating – it’s about more than the bingo.
“That friendship has just bonded us from there over the years. And so it’s always been there— that support system, and I depend on her for that support; but I also feel like in that friendship, I try to give her support also,” Waters said. There are the prominent examples of support, such as the time Jasper provided Waters and her family with much-needed financial help in the form of a microloan. But, in a much more quiet, yet no less important way, the two support one another in the day-to-day business of serving God’s people, offering prayer and friendship in a field that can sometimes leave its workers spiritually depleted.
“I honestly can’t see me doing my job on a daily basis without support from Scarlette,” Waters said. “The other people from the community that I pull in, we have to be one unit. We have to be able to come together on any program and work together because there are so many needs in this community. If it’s simple or if it’s major, you’ve got to have different levels of support. And so it takes all of us to make that one unit.”
Jasper, for her part, feels the same. Having done similar work for non-religious organizations in the past, Jasper knows what it’s like to have that spiritual need go unmet, to feel as if the “Jesus part” of her work had to be compartmentalized, if not totally snuffed out. She understands the importance of an invitation into long-term presence, of Christ-centered community. She has tried this work without it. And, at least for her, it couldn’t be done.
“We’ve done nutrition bingo and done other things, but it’s just one way of how we all connect and those relationships get built,” Jasper said. “It’s how that long-term presence just builds to deeper relationships and other avenues of ministry and being together and supporting each other. And what Kim has said is not only that I am here, but that we’re here for each other.”
Just as in bingo, sometimes amid the plodding routine and active waiting, things do, surprisingly and fittingly work out in your favor.
That “bingo!” moment could come in the form of a newfound and steadfast friendship. It could arrive as a microloan check or a prayerful check-in, as relief both financial and spiritual. Or, it could manifest in the very work itself, the intrinsic blessing of the banquet invitation Jesus promised we would receive.
“I love my seniors. And I put 100-plus percent in here. And Scarlet will tell you that she knows me. She knows I do that. I do that for love. I do that for love for them, and it gives me satisfaction,” Waters said. “It makes me feel good knowing I helped somebody. I helped somebody if they needed food, I helped someone if they needed a door put up, and [if] I don’t have the money to do that, I can call a resource and they will take care of those seniors. They will provide for them.”