“Do you think they’ll let us in?” I asked my husband.
“Of course. It’s not like we have to show a homeless bag to prove our status.” he snickered.
We got in the soup kitchen line and received heaping masses of salad, green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potatoes, ambrosia, turkey, ham, and rolls. And man, was it all good.
We hoped to find connection here. From past experience, we’ve learned that sometimes serving without connection isn’t very fulfilling. So we scanned the room to find some empty seats to occupy, and break bread with the poor and transient. What would it be like to have their experience with them, instead of lord over them, serving?
Stephen wouldn’t talk to us at first. Just a nod here and there. Maybe he was embarrassed. Maybe he couldn’t hear. Maybe he couldn’t talk. Maybe he wanted his space to eat quietly.
It wasn’t until Keri, who smiled at us and started up a conversation, did Stephen come alive and join in. Keri and Stephen have shared several meals together over the last year at the Food and Care Coalition. They didn’t know each other’s names, but they knew each other’s faces.
Keri was packing up her extra food she wasn’t able to finish, and a little bit more, to take home. “Do you have a place to go?” I asked. “Yes. Because we’ve been able to eat for free here the past year, I’ve been able to make our rent payment. They serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner everyday here – no questions asked.”
She was radiant. She was friendly. She was grateful. She had recently come out of chemo. Her son, Sam, was with her. A teenager. By his shifting weight and rolling eyes, I could tell he was embarrassed by her telling us her story. I can only imagine what the last year of his life must have been like. Likely no dad around, a very sick mother facing death, absent from his life as she fought for hers, maybe not always knowing where his next meal would come from. By her friendly and gracious spirit, Keri defied my preconceived notions of the type of person that would be in a soup kitchen for Thanksgiving.
“Can I get you anything else?” one of the volunteers asked us after our plates were empty. I forget his name, but I can still remember his face. 40’s. Handsome. Clean and presentable. You could say your typical middle-income guy. He probably owns a house in the burbs, two cars, and a family. But he admitted that he’d been laid off several months ago, from a University job he assumed he have forever. As he looked around, it was as if his face was revealing his fear that perhaps next year, he and his family would be here, not as volunteers, but as a family needing a warm meal.
Marjorie was sitting clear in the front all by herself at an otherwise empty table, enjoying the entertainment on the stage (volunteer singers). She wore a read sweater and had a red bow in her silver hair. Age had hunched her back over.
I sheepishly pulled into the seat next to her and simply said, “hi.” “Hi” she quietly but happily replied. “I saw you sitting here all by yourself and thought that I’d like to get to know you.” As her kind brown eyes flooded with tears, and then mine in like reaction, she said with a glowing smile, “Well aren’t you a sweetheart!” Her cheeks were almost as red as the bow in her hair. She was beautiful, and I told her so.
She was visiting from Kansas her daughter who was in the food line serving. She wasn’t homeless, or even poor. She was just old – which appeared to be as lonely and crippling. She was a different kind of outcast.
Marjorie and I connected, soul to soul. When time and space no longer separate us, I’m sure we’ll be friends. I may have made her day by talking with her, but she made my day by asking if I was a student at the local collage. ; ) (I had to explain that I’m much older than I look!)
I so wish I had captured Marjorie’s portrait. But it didn’t feel right to ask.
The guy in the Lynyrd Skynyrd hat was hard-looking. Like, Stephen, he didn’t seem to want to talk at first. But after Daisy, the seeing-eye puppy in training, came over to visit our table, Todd opened up like a little kid with a big grin on his face. Who doesn’t love puppies! This Thanksgiving was not the first time Todd had been here. Though he never said how long he’s been coming, I got this impression it had been quite awhile. And when he told me he had no place to go to, I likewise got the feeling he had been transient for awhile, when he said, “they make it harder and harder to even sleep on the streets anymore.”
Unlike Todd, it was D’s first time. While he was eating his feast, it was Keri who told him about all the facility offered. In addition to meals, he could shower, get internet service, and in the summers, tend the garden and eat of its fruits. D was thrilled… how had he never heard of this place before, he wondered. D has lived out of his car off and on for years so he can pay child support with whatever money he does make.
While D and I were talking, a gray haired man came up to our table to sit down. His eyes didn’t look right, he walked with a severe limp, and he was signing to us. Not knowing sign language, I stupidly looked at him and said, “I don’t understand.” He persisted anyways, as if he didn’t really care that I couldn’t understand. He seemed just happy to be ‘talking’. But suddenly, he put his hand up, as if to say, “stop”. Then he bowed his head in prayer over his food, and dramatically began signing his prayer. It was so very beautiful. I wanted to take a picture so badly, and I wrestled with myself, It’s too sacred, it would be rude. But it’s so very beautiful. So I took the picture, for better or for worse.
My take away from this day was prominent: “But by the Grace of God, there go I.” And there go you, and your family. Not that these people don’t enjoy God’s grace. They surely do. They are beautiful and warm and friendly people. None complained – it was amazing. Keri especially touched my heart ~ after all she had been through, she was so gracious and loving, forgetting about herself and extending herself to others. She was a true inspiration. She understands the real value of life… people. In a world of gross consumption and rat racing, I found a peace in many of these people that is not often found.
This experience made Thanksgiving fulfilling, in a way that doesn’t involve stressing over what food to make, getting it made in time, serving everything warm, a mess of dishes afterwards – the result of hours and hours of preparation, only to be over in 30 minutes. No, that all came on Sunday! With the kids and grand kids. And that was worth every second : ).