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What I Learned About Creating Community and Radical Hospitality While Sleeping in a Chick-Fil-A Drive-thru – Guest Post by Mark Walz

19 Dec 2018 10:31 PM | Jen Burch (Administrator)

Recently, I found myself sitting in a camping chair in a Chick-Fil-A parking lot, cheering on a man who was a complete stranger to me a mere 12 hours before. I was chanting his name, along with 99 other strangers, as we all rallied together and watched new friends and fellow “original chicken sandwich” lovers dance and sing to songs like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Let it Go.” Later that evening I ended up participating in a bizarre game with a 5-year-old girl that involved me attempting to hula hoop whilst trying to “juggle” bean bags (okay, throw randomly) while she wore a “KanJam” barrel around her.

Chick-Fil-A opens nearly 100 new restaurants every year, and since 2003 they have been offering free Chick-Fil-A meals for a year to the first 100 people to join their “First 100 Campout.” The challenge involves staying on the restaurant grounds for up to 24 hours, not leaving the grounds (not even once), and participating in mandatory (but fun!) line checks. I have always been enamored by this idea of camping out and sleeping in a Chick-Fil-A parking lot for 24 hours to get free food for a year, so I had previously said that if a Chick-Fil-A ever opened near me, I would be one of the first in line.

Well, it finally happened. A new Chick-Fil-A opening was announced in my town and I knew I had to go. I was number 13. I arrived at 5:45 a.m. along with several other folks, got my wristband, secured my place in line, and set up my tent in the drive-thru area right in front of the menu and ordering speaker. I wasn’t sure what to expect, so I brought a chair and my laptop, a few books, and several other things to occupy my time. It turns that I wouldn’t need any of those things at all! The Chick-Fil-A staff not only welcomed us and made us feel at home by using phrases like “welcome to our family,” and “we are excited to be a part of your community,” but they also had exciting community-building activities and games for us to play. There was almost no down time because in between all of the free meals and mandatory line checks we played name games, minute-to-win-it games, trivia, had scavenger hunts, dance parties, and even a lip-sync contest.

Everyone was welcomed regardless of social status or class or age or gender or background. I met mothers and fathers, the housing challenged and housed, rich and poor, students and unemployed. It didn’t matter who you were because we were all on this together and shared a common goal: free Chick-Fil-A for a year. We were all there “suffering” and “enduring” together. It was a single shared experience and we all quickly became friends and family. We became a tribe of Chick-Fil-A campers who shared meals, played games, talked about life, and even defended each other on social media after the news came, shared a story online and negative comments started rolling in.

As I was setting up a tent alongside strangers, I started to make new friends by helping them set up tents, swapping stories, sharing jokes, and even talking about Christian theology (there were a lot of seminary students there for some reason.) The whole time I kept exclaiming to my wife, “This is like camp!” – I truly felt that it was. As I thought about it, the similarities to camp became clear: we didn’t know anything about each other, we all had the same goal, we were diverse, we were in a fixed state of sabbath and retreat (limited electricity, no A/C or heat, no comfy beds) and we truly felt welcomed with the radical hospitality of this fast-food franchise’s employees. The employees would and did bend over backward for our every need – and they didn’t have to! We weren’t there to give anything, we were only there to get free chicken for a year and they treated us like we were royalty.

Chick-Fil-A’s “First 100” camp outs are, oddly, an incredible model for how to do camp. Radical hospitality and community building. Unbelievably organized. Unconditionally welcoming. Dropping a bunch of strangers from different backgrounds into a shared goal or mission is incredibly unifying and socially leveling. We were stuck together, and there was not much we could do but listen to each other, love on each other, eat with each other, and learn about each other.

We don’t have to know anything about somebody to be able to love them and to celebrate them. Every person is important to God and to the Church. At camp, we already have all we need to kindle an incredible Christian community and invoke radical hospitality. “Radical hospitality” requires intentional invitation and welcome. It requires welcoming every person as an honored guest. So let’s let people know who we are and what we value. And if it somehow involves a free chicken sandwich, even better.

Mark Walz Jr. is a life-long United Methodist Camper. He has previously worked on staff at Aldersgate Camp in Kentucky and has since then been a “permanent volunteer” working on everything from leading weeklong camps in the summer, retreats in the winter, and running the camp website and working with their communications and technology year-round. Mark and his newly-wed wife Ciara live in Lexington, KY, where he serves as the Director of Communication and Technology at St. Luke United Methodist Church. He is a type 2 on the Enneagram, the helper. As such, he is involved with volunteering for so many things, including a local community development after school Program, a secret concert series, and a monthly community personal storytelling event. Mark and Ciara will be eating a lot of chicken sandwiches this year.

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