A Plastic Medallion Away
-Rev Melissa Fain-
My Kindergarten through the first half of my third grade year was spent at Burke Elementary School in Kansas City, Missouri. I have a few vague fond memories of playing with friends in the giant tires on the playground, or laughing at teachers pretending to be fortune tellers, but beyond that my memories are haunted. See, I went to this school during the darkest time of my childhood. It was a school that added to the pain I experienced, and made my situation even worse than it already was. These specific people, who are etched in my brain for all time, were not the real problem. It was the system in which they lived.
Before there were accounts where parents checked a child's balance for breakfasts and lunches, kids brought their coins and dollars to school. At my school. that lunch money was traded in for a plastic medallion. It was round, red and about the size of a half dollar. It made lunch something magical. A single coin for a well balanced meal.
First and second grade I lived in the magic of that coin. It was the innocence of childhood at it's best. But, halfway through second grade my world was turned upside down. Divorce. Neglect. Hunger. These were all words I learned and knew. at a very early age. At home I had to sneak food to eat. I lived off oranges, raw potatoes, and white bread with sugar sprinkled on top. We feared leaving our room, believing our step-dad was capable of anything. School became my escape from all that.
When classes started back up my third grade year, I saw that red medallion like a salvation. Only, one morning I had no money to take to school. When I got to class I had nothing to trade for the scratched up red plastic. When I got in line for lunch, the lunch lady's kind demeanor turned dark and foreboding. "What do you mean you don't have your coin?" She let me get my lunch, but warned me to come back with two coins the next day. That night I asked my mom for the money. She was confused. She didn't understand why she had to pay twice. I had to explain I wasn't given my money that morning. After considerable discussion, she gave it to me, and the next day I gleefully payed two coins. (After having the conversation again with my teacher.)
Only, a week later my mom didn't give me money again, and this time grace was in short supply. The lunch lady took my meal, and I watched her throw it in the trash. Dejected, I sat with my classmates as they ate. I was hungry, but no one was going to feed me.
I didn't tell my Dad when he picked us up for the visitation he had every other weekend. I should have,but I felt I had done something wrong. I didn't want him mad at me too.I did, however, steal from his coin bank, enough to buy meals for the two weeks until I'd see him again. That magical coin was no longer magic. It was old and dirty. I was being punished for something I couldn't control.
Many years later I took a Disciples of Christ Polity class at Columbia Theological Seminary. It was a night class, the only one I took my three and a half years earning my MDiv.
In the combined study of my denomination, I can remember Alexander Campbell's breaking moment more than anything else. It spoke directly to me.
As part of the Campbell's membership to his particular Presbyterian sect, he had to receive a coin to partake of weekly communion. In class, I watched the Hollywood Christian Church's reenactment of the event. Campbell stood outside the church. He looked at his coin, the one his minister had given him for being "good enough" to receive the holy meal. Then he looked at a homeless man lying in the street. No words were spoken, but the point was clear. Where was this man's coin? Was he not worthy of the same meal? Then he marched into worship, threw his coin in the collection plate, and marched back out without communion.
That moment sealed it for me. Alexander Campbell gave up his meal, so I could have my own. My physical meal, and his spiritual meal melted together into one truth: We are all worthy! Knowing Camp Counselors made fun of me after hours at Church Camp didn't matter anymore. Knowing I was not the daughter of some well known minister wasn't the point. Watching a perfectly good lunch being thrown away, while I ate nothing, came back with a flaming purpose. I was called to the table without the coin, because Campbell did away with the coin many years before I was even born. I could consume God's love without qualifiers. I could fill up with the Spirit just like anyone else. I didn't have to steal it or negotiate the terms. It simply existed because it was always meant to be my place at the table.
If you want to know why I've spent my life in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), there it is. It's knowing all really does mean all, and all includes me. Broken, hungry me. It includes you too. Thank God Almighty, it includes you too.