This will be long and meandering. Feel free to skip over it.
I did spend my Thanksgiving serving people here at the Salvation Army. For all the reasons I’ve written already, I didn’t visit my sister and her family, nor did I opt to spend the day alone. And you’ll recall that our Episcopal parish has chosen to partner with the Salvation Army in the coming year – never mind our vast differences.
The day was a great blessing. I intend to do this again. We all know St. Frances’ prayer that “It is in giving that we receive.” Thursday, I experienced it, rather than just saying the words.
I must first say that Salvation Army here could do a better job of dispatching and organizing its volunteers. There were too many volunteers who didn’t have assignments. That’s unfortunate, and they need to fix it. The only thing worse than having a shortage of personnel is having too many with no assignments. But that’s for them to fix.
Now, remember what I have written before: In this town of 40,000, we do not see that we have a “homeless” problem. In this middle-class town, severe poverty is invisible to us.
I arrived at the Salvation Army about 9 a.m., as their staff had suggested. I signed-in and got my name tag. There were about 50 people sitting around the dining room … all volunteers waiting for work. I could see many people working hard in the kitchen.
I asked for assignment. I was told to join the “task-less” volunteers … or move into another room where they were organizing meal deliveries. Not being one who likes to sit, I went to the delivery area.
I didn’t realize that the Salvation Army also delivers meals. The staging area for this work was inefficient. I’ll spare you the details, and cut to the chase: I got to deliver meals to two families. They could not have been more different.
The first delivery: I knocked and knocked on an apartment door, with no answer. Just before I was about to give up, a man came out from the adjacent apartment, greeted me with a hearty “God bless you!” and popped back inside to find the woman whose name I had. We had a fine exchange. Graceful. Mutual. I left feeling blessed.
Then on to my 2nd delivery. Again, knock-knock-knocking on the door, eventually wondering if anyone would answer. Finally someone did – a young teen. He hollered for the woman while he closed the door on me. She finally came to the door. All full of Thanksgiving cheer and God’s blessings, I happily passed the meals along to her. But another part of me recoiled. This woman looked seriously drugged-out, strung-out, and hopeless. She was a walking skeleton. And she seemed perplexed that I had appeared on her doorstep with food. My heart broke for her on that Thanksgiving Day.
Later, when I returned to the Salvation Army, they explained that sometimes mothers or grandmothers ask for meals to be delivered to their daughters and granddaughters.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget that contrast. Clearly, the first family had requested meals, and they blessed me. But that 2nd home will haunt me – a too-young mother in a miserable home with miserable hopelessness in her eyes. It is her eyes that will haunt me.
I knew the Salvation Army didn’t plan to serve meals until 11:30, and I had finished my rounds. At this point, I was feeling about as useless as tits on a boar.
I went to Starbuck’s – God help me! – for a double tall latte. I hadn’t had good coffee yet, and I was feeling useless.
Back to Salvation Army
I went back, of course. When I returned, there were a great many volunteers standing and sitting around with nothing to do.
Among the volunteers were many families – Mom, Dad, and children. Several of them had been doing this for several years. The parents were teaching their children that this was an important ministry. That impressed me.
The Salvation Army rep greeted us warmly, talked about the importance of our ministry, talked about the importance of our spending time with the people, talked and talked. But I was lurking on the outskirts of the volunteers, asking all of them exactly what we were supposed to do and how we supposed to do it. I wanted to know the logistics – which I did not know – so that I could provide the ministry, which I probably could figure out. But none of my compatriots had served before. They were as clueless as I.
When the Salvation Army rep finished her encouraging remarks, I sidled up beside her, and asked timidly, “That’s all well and good. But what do you want us to DO?”
Many of us were serving in a wholly different venue. We had never been there before. Yes, we understood about ministering to people. But we had no idea about the mundane logistics.
Lesson to Volunteer Coordinators: If you manage to distribute your message and yield a bunch of newbies, please give us tasks!
The next 3 hours are a blur. I found work to do, without any guidance from the Salvation Army staff. One seasoned veteran volunteers shouted: “We need more rolls!” and pointed me toward the rolls, and I dispensed them. Or the seasoned veterans called, “More desserts!” and I cut more pies and cakes.
God help me, I confess I gravitated toward the behind-the-scenes tasks in the kitchen.
Eventually the “A Team” servers rotated off the hot food serving line and I found myself up front. That was my happiest time. Serving food to the people. Not hiding out behind the lines.
At some point early on, I noticed the size of the servings that my compadres were piling on. Every plate had about twice as much as an average person could consume in a meal. Later, I saw that some few people were coming back, asking for a “to-go plate.” Each “meal” we served could have served two. Another “meal” could have served two more. I was glad we had so much food that we could easily afford to be extravagant with it.
The One Encounter
Eventually, the serving line slowed. The Salvation Army had announced they would serve meals until 2:00 p.m. As I was winding-up my service on the line, one last guy came in.
Until then, I had been up to my eyeballs in chores. Now things had slowed down. I had time to leave my post (where I had served dressing and sweet potatoes onto plates), wash my hands, and have some leisure.
After all the flurry of action and do-gooderism, I wandered out into the dining room and sat down with this guy. We chatted a bit. I didn’t reveal to him how close to homeless-and-starving I was a decade ago. That wasn’t my burden to share with him. We just chatted. As he finished his meal, I asked, “Can I fix you another meal to go? We have oodles of food left.” He demurred. I said, “OK. But I’m taking one for myself.” [And I was. The food was very good!] It broke my heart to see his eyes, looking up, down, casting his chances, weighing his pride. And then he said, “OK. Me too.”
With love, I went back to the serving table to load him up with turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, and corn. The same overstuffed plate I had made for myself a few minutes earlier.
I have written here before about how I want to find a ministry, and how inept I feel.
This one exchange with this one man made my day.
It’s the luck of the draw that I had leisure to serve this meal. Not many years ago, I was near homeless myself. Had it not been for generous friends, I would have been homeless and hungry … just like the folks we served Thursday.
Many of the folks with whomI served Thursday have been doing this for several years. Now, I understand why., I expect I, too, will do it again.
It truly is more blessed to give than to receive.
But I bet no one will understand that I received much more than I gave last Thursday.