The second Sunday of each month, I volunteer with other members of my faith community at a local soup kitchen, preparing and serving a meal to about 100 men, women, and children. Their number includes every race, a wide age range, some born here, and others not, but they all have one thing in common: they are hungry and food-insecure. I am happy to be able to spend my Sunday making sure that that tiny group of fellow humans goes home with plenty of food in their bellies, and sometimes even some extra to get them through the next day or two.
The thing I need you to know about these people is that they are not that different from me. One poor choice, one catastrophic injury, a particularly nasty divorce, or a long-lasting economic downturn is all that separates me from the people I served lunch to today. Believing anything else exposes biases that you might want to examine. I say this because my own biases were exposed the first time I volunteered there, and I swore to check myself over and over until I had found them all. I know I haven’t.
Today was a welcome chance for me to inject some good back into a world that needs it badly right now. I look forward to it every month, and after a year, it feels comfortable and familiar, a place where I can help a few folks have a better day. The mood was light, the weather was unseasonably mild, and conversations were friendly in the packed dining room.
Donations often arrive on Sundays, and even though we are not supposed to, if the food is non-perishable, we will accept them and put them where the regular staff can handle them properly on Monday morning. People generally pull up to the back of the building, to the loading dock, unload their cars, and after some pleasantries, drive away to their next destination, having done their good deed. But today was different in a way that I will never forget.
A middle-aged man and his young daughter walked into the dining room, and it was clear they weren’t there to eat lunch. He was carrying shopping bags full of canned soups, and stood uncomfortably near the door, not sure what to do next. When I approached them, he looked at me and launched into a breathless explanation of how he had come to donate, and wanted to know if we needed more help today. As I led him out of the dining room into the back, toward the pantry, he recounted a phone conversation he’d had with someone on staff, who had said his daughter was too young to volunteer, was that really the case? When I told him he could set the soups down near the pantry door to be checked in by staff, he knelt down and began unwrapping the multi-can packaging to separate the cans of soup, so “everyone would get their fair share, and no one would take the whole package”, and all the while still talking about volunteering and peering into the pantry to see how it worked, and what did I think they needed donated the most, and was that where families got their food, or was it what was served in the dining room?
I gently broke in to his frantic monologue, to assure him that the soup kitchen/pantry staff would take care of the soup for him, and would make sure it was distributed fairly. I confirmed that yes, his daughter was too young to volunteer in the kitchen. I explained that I was just a volunteer, and that he should contact the soup kitchen during the week to volunteer for a shift. During all this, I was vaguely aware that the dining room was filling, and my fellow volunteers were getting run around a bit, keeping everything replenished and tidy, helping those who are not able to stand in line, and checking on the mothers with children in the Family Dining Room. I knew I needed to get back to work.
As I directed the man and his daughter back out to the dining room to exit the building, he continued to pepper me with questions, what kind of things would he be expected to do when he volunteered, would he need to cook, or would he be serving and cleaning, and was I sure his daughter was too young, and I tried to answer his questions as kindly and quickly as I could. He asked me my name, and he told me his, and I am sad and sorry to say I am unable to remember it.
The thing I need you to know about this man is that, guessing by his complexion and his accent, he was an immigrant from the Middle East. His name took me two tries to pronounce correctly, and was too unfamiliar sounding to stick in my memory. But what will stick in my memory forever was the urgency that brought him to the soup kitchen, to be helpful, to show his willingness to do anything to help other Americans less fortunate than him, to show that he was part of the solution, not part of the problem. It was imperative for him to make me understand that in his view, we are all in this together.
As he left, he promised me I’d see him again. With the way the soup kitchen schedule works, I don’t know if I will ever see him or not. But I know he will be there when he can, and he knows I will be there when I can, and that’s what we all need to promise each other going forward into this dark, cold winter.