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"Yeah, right. Nothing is free anymore,” said a woman walking down State Street during Redlands’ Thursday evening downtown Market Night.*
The California street was lined with vendor booths. But the one the woman walked away from was different. It was a vending machine with “free” on every button.
From 6 to 9 p.m. on five Market Nights culminating on Sept. 8, 2016, the Redlands Seventh-day Adventist Church’s hollow vending machine dispensed free beverages, snacks, dolls, coloring books and crayons, and glow stick tubes. On one night alone, almost 750 items were given away.
By the final night, the machine had distributed more than 4,100 items.
This no-strings-attached giveaway left passersby surprised and curious.
|Cool! A woman enjoys free beverages from the Redlands Seventh-day Adventist Church's vending machine at a local farmer's market.
Photo provided by Redlands church
Not a Social Study
One man asked if it was a study on human behavior, while his girlfriend searched to find a hidden camera. Some joked about not giving their Social Security numbers or getting their fingerprints dusted from the buttons.
Todd Rosspencer, the youth and young adult pastor at the Redlands church, managed the booth. As people ventured up, he’d assure them it was indeed a free vending machine, saying “our church is just having fun.” And also giving visitors food for thought.
Rosspencer said the idea for the free vending machine began when he started bringing burritos for lunch to Redlands High School, to a boy from his church youth group. The teen began inviting some friends and the group soon grew to 30 students.
They eventually thought of building a hollow vending machine and having a person inside with hundreds of burritos to give away during lunch. A campus food distribution policy, however, prevented the idea from becoming reality.
So Rosspencer’s team turned its focus to Market Night.
“The concept moved from the local public school campus to our downtown market night,” said Rosspencer explaining that four youth group teens were still involved.
During the Market Night events, three girls interacted with people and helped draw attention and traffic to the machine. “The hero of the project was Kameron Plata, ‘the boy in the box,’ who manned the vending machine from the inside,” said Rosspencer.
“Imagine a hollow machine with a 30-gallon trash can brimming with drinks and ice water, stacks and stacks of drinks in cases, and a teenager wedged between it all, watching for a button to push, then checking our signal light to see if he can drop any random drink in the bin or modify it for a child, a diabetic, etc. — for 3.5 hours each night!”
Rosspencer added, “Kameron didn’t miss a beat!”
|Several visitors wait for a drink and toy during a recent Redlands Market Night while Pastor Todd Rosspencer looks on.
Photo provided by Redlands church
Rosspencer said he has wrestled with how to convey Christianity’s message of free salvation. He said that despite the doctrine of salvation by grace, “people continue striving to earn God’s favor and then feel guilty or judged for falling short of perfection.”
Rosspencer asked his youth ministry assistant, Jon Soto, to build a vending machine so they’d be able to give away items that people expect to pay for.
“I want to demonstrate the word ‘free’ as God defines it,” Rosspencer said.
“People are over-solicited and wary there’s a catch because there often is one. But with God, free is free. He truly paid the bill. It’s simply our choice to accept the gift,” he said.
Rosspencer shared how one man standing in line for his free drink said, “I get it. It’s like salvation; that’s free, too.” Rosspencer said he gave the man a high-five and told him he just made his night.
The pastor said that he too was reminded of Christ’s work on earth. “To love our neighbor, we need to go to where our neighbors are, meet them as they are, accept them as they are, and let God lead,” he said. “That’s the incarnational ministry Jesus modeled. He moved into our neighborhood, was accused of becoming too much like the riff-raff, but did not waver from the ultimate truth of His message and mission.”
The church staff is considering participation in Market Night again in late November, leading up to their annual Christmas plays; and/or in March, before their Easter plays. Also during December, said Rossspencer, the church opens its lobby to serve baked cookies and hot drinks during the annual Redlands Christmas Parade. “For 3-4 hours, people stroll the parade route looking at more than 100 floats waiting in line to begin,” Rosspencer said. “Parade participants and observers get cold (and need to relieve themselves), so we provide a place for them to experience warm hospitality.” The church has considered using the vending machine for this outreach event as well.
But whatever the Redlands church decides to do with their one-of-a-kind machine, it will be with the Gospel in mind.
“When you give something away for free, the people’s reactions are fascinating,” said Rosspencer. “You see a wide spectrum of human responses: disinterest, excitement, verbal sarcasm/taunts, looks of bewilderment, exuberant interest, disdain, joy and glee, curiosity, judgment, affirmation, wanton greed, generosity, selfishness despite abundance, attempts to repay us, theological debate, spiritual release, and a ton of brotherly love across a vast demographic of people.”
He added, “When free truly is free, people smile, laugh, tell others, are touched, and periodically express gratitude. Some become inquisitive since we’re clearly not trying to lure them. . . . That relaxes and attracts people. And the conversations that come out of that feel a lot less like a sales pitch and far more like a friend talking with another friend.”
Rosspencer believes that evangelism without a “hook” is valuable in a society that feels hyper-marketed. Spiritual growth has many phases and for some people, the first step is just to experience the free grace of God, prior to any information, Bible study, or religious program.
“Those are all good, and important,” said Rosspencer. This is a first step that is safe for those who are apprehensive of anything church related.
“Christians and non-Christians alike want the love of Jesus and are waiting for the church to live it. They are touched when we do.”
* Established in 1988, Redlands Market Night is a certified farmers' markets in Southern California. Located in the heart of downtown Redlands, visitors are welcomed to stroll past shops and restaurants, surrounded by more than 150 food, produce, and merchandise vendor booths every Thursday night.
Market Night Vending Machine by the Numbers
3,500 drinks (soft drinks, sports drinks, tea, water)
100 bags of potato chips
260 tubes of glow sticks
60 Finding Dory coloring booklets and crayons
50 packets of toy game cards
12 BB8 toys
6 flower leis
1,000s of friendly smiles, hundreds of bursts of laughter with people, and innumerable seeds planted in people who now see church a bit differently.