Saturday, December 09, 2006

600 Stories

But I can only share mine.

I joined a group of youth from our parish to feed the hungry and homeless at a soup kitchen.

A soup kitchen! It all sounded so bizarrely Cannery Row, or something.

We arrived sometime after 7 am at a beautiful church in downtown Atlanta, The Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The church basement was already a busy beehive of activity, with people cooking, and setting up the makeshift parish hall (not what the new churches have--this is really a basement, painted in a gaudy green, but incredibly functional). Old pews line one of the walls, and well-used and battle-weary tables were set out in what later proved to be efficient and manageable dining sections.

The guy directing all that human traffic, Ted, is a delightful retired Government employee--let's call him an engineer because if he isn't I'm pretty surprised--this guy seemed to be disorganized and thinking as he was moving, but to my amazement, the day went off without a hitch. He is a phenomenal people-person, a cartoon, a stereotype, a gigantic heart in a regular man, and very very funny.

He spoke great truths in little bursts, and was in a perpetual state of catechesis, the kind my dear friend calls backdoor catechesis. We went there feeling magnanimous about our time and sacrifice to do something for the poor. He helped us understand that the poor were gracing us with the opportunity to serve them and learn something. That lesson was not lost on me at all.

He began by letting us know that we would see things that would surprise us, or confuse us...perhaps make us uncomfortable. He warned that there might be instances of rudeness and hostility. He told us to forgive and always be respectful--to address these folks as "Sir" and "Ma'am." In short, to give these people a meal, and more importantly, human dignity. I never saw so many kids smile and genuinely serve. It was beautiful.

After the set up period, we were dismissed to attend Mass in the beautiful historic church. Father Henry delivered a similar message to us, as my new friend Ted. He spoke at length about how the poor are harrassed, not in the ways that we are harrassed, but by things we don't experience. The cold. Hunger. Fear. They seemed to be preparing us for something that we couldn't yet comprehend.

They estimated that about 600 people were served today. The vast majority, and I do mean the vast majority, 99+% were happy to be served, happy to be there, and if not happy, certainly grateful for the warmth of the hall, and the warmth of the food. They had good table manners (why would one think that being poor equals being a rude pig? I've seen greater slobs at fine restaurants), and cordial behavior. They asked for what they needed without shame (and some--burning with shame), and we were happy to provide it. Truly, in over 200 people served in my section, we only had one person that seemed out of place with his behavior. I suspect that he was slick, not poor, yet we served him with the same respect.

A number of things stand out in my day, as snapshots, little mental polaroids because I can't yet process the whole experience.

* a man, dressed in his finest clothes, terribly outdated and in stark contrast to others, but he was clean and pressed and behaving as if he was attending the finest meal in the finest company. For him, it certainly was.

* a toothless, disheveled man in dirty clothes, shivering, shivering, and asking for anything hot. He drank his coffee and ate his soup, and stayed at his seat for a long time. No one asked him to move.

* a prostitute. She had to be a prostitute. And she sat with the group, and she was served with a smile.

* a mother and her two children, Anna and Daniel's ages. I wept at that one. Enough said there.

* a young couple with a lot of bags, clearly out of place, and yet, a part of the group.

* a woman wearing all kinds of mismatched clothes for warmth ate two bowls of soup and the sandwich that was also provided, and asked me, very humbly, if she might have another one to take with her. I came back with three, and she was so grateful that I had to excuse myself for the second time to compose myself. Later, as she was leaving, we sent over a another couple of handfuls. She was there with a man who was taking great pains to help her carry her possessions in a broken canvas bag.

Ninety minutes later, after everyone was fed and the hall was cleaned up, I walked out to the curb to wait for the parking lot to clear (we were blocked in). One of the other youth groups was gathering in the area where I stood, and so I started to make my way through them to get back to my group. One of the teens in the group came up to me and asked, "Are you in my group?"

I laughed and said no. And then he did something totally amazing. He said, "Well, I'll give you a hug anyway! It's a great day, isn't it?"

It certainly was.

3 comments:

cortijo said...

Great story Maria.

critter said...

very touching!

Michelle said...

I really enjoyed reading the snapshots that you provided. You do a great job of humanizing folks who might otherwise be lumped into one blurry group.