Putting Down Roots


soup kitchen lessons, part one

Tonight, I put the spoon for the macaroni and cheese in one hand, and the tongs for the rolls in the other hand, and took my place at the edge of the serving table closest to the line of folks coming through for food: it’s the prime place for making small talk, and I always feel better about doing things like serving a soup kitchen meal if I can talk to people and make some sort of human connection.

On the surface, it looks like what we’re doing is simple: offering food to people who need it. Really, though, there are a whole bunch of strange power dynamics at play in situations like this: for example, all but one of the volunteers were white, and all but a few of the folks we were serving were black. We’re the “servers” and they’re the “needy.” It would be easy–and, in many ways, totally accurate–to call the folks who came through for plates of food the “underprivileged” and to call us, the servers, the “privileged.” There’s comfort in categories like that, and a whole bunch of pride in getting to serve people, rather than being served (see how many times someone who’s volunteering at a soup kitchen will actually take a plate and eat alongside the patrons).

When I find myself in these sorts of situations–and I have loved serving food to folks who need it for a really long time, and get a bunch out of it on several different levels–I try to be really intentional about what my attitude is. There’s such a temptation for back-patting and self-congratulating on the one hand, and for failing to see that we’re getting anything out of the experience on the other hand. It’s so easy to set ourselves on a different level from the folks we’re serving.

Which brings us to today. I had spent the day kind of wallowing. I was feeling bored, icky, underinspired. I ate too much junk food. I watched too much TV. I checked facebook too many times and managed to be surprised that checking facebook incessantly didn’t actually serve to make me feel less alone and more engaged. I was feeling lazy, and it was only because I knew Kay needed extra hands at Grace Mission and I had already committed that I decided to not just slump back in bed once work was done. (Kay is extremely graceful, but I knew being a no-show would disappoint her, which isn’t something I can handle.)

Serving folks gives me energy, as does talking to strangers, and so I was grateful to take the small-talk spot at the serving table. Some folks talk and laugh with us while we fix their plates, others don’t say much, and many offer a perfunctory, “how you doing?” as they wait. One man, when I asked him how he was, said, “blessed.”

Here I was, my day having involved waking up in a fabulous soft bed in a cozy room that I do not pay rent on, working a job that is remarkably flexible and consistently adorable, and getting an email notifying me that I got awarded a $3000 scholarship for which I did not apply, and I had been feeling whiny and basking in low-grade self-pity. (When I lay it all out like that, I shock even myself with my vast ungratefulness).

And then here is this man. I don’t really know anything about him, only that most of the folks who come through Grace Mission for dinner do so before going to the Shelter to sleep for the night, because the food is better at Grace. He was maybe homeless, at least chronically hungry. Almost definitely poor. Likely jobless. Wearing clothes that were probably from some charity’s clothes closet.

When he said he was blessed, though, I didn’t go off and explain all of the reasons he could, very rationally, complain about things. I didn’t tell him that I had actually been feeling pretty low myself today. I didn’t talk about cycles of poverty or systems of oppression. I had a serving spoon full of macaroni in my hand, and there was a long line of people behind him. I just looked him in the eyes, and nodded slowly, and said, “hey. Yeah. Me too.”

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