My friend Cliff has been going to a soup kitchen in Saginaw once a month. He pastors an ELCA church in our area and is very successful mobilizing his people into action. I went with him the last time they went. Six of us headed out at eight o’clock Friday morning. I’m not much of a morning person, so I was quiet. I had already been up for a while to take my wife and kids to work.
When we arrived, we went straight to work. My first duty was to wash a couple hundred pounds of frozen catfish to fry for lunch. I then moved to the eye wrenching pain of chopping onions. How I wish I had brought my own cooks knife. One of our group brought three cases of cabbage straight from the garden that morning and we made it into an insane amount of coleslaw. Of course under the hair-net, and behind the apron, nestled thoughts about the discipline of service, and remembrance of the presence of God in the onion vapor.
Soon the doors opened and a steady stream of hungry people came in. It was the end of the month and like me, many of these people had run out of their food stamps and wouldn’t be able to buy groceries until next Tuesday. My job was to keep the serving line stocked with whatever they needed. I refilled gallons of fruit punch, and made sure cookies were on hand for desert. I stood behind the front lines. I looked into the faces of the 371 people we served. I tried to discern the thoughts behind their eyes, but they were separated by a stainless steel counter, by one helping, and strange faces, most of which changed every day.
We served in two shifts, and in between we sat and ate in the cafeteria too. I consciously put on my tray exactly what we were serving. I ate in solidarity, but I ate alone. Or, I should say I ate with the other volunteers. We were seated at a table in the middle of the room. My biggest regret is that I didn’t sit at another table, mingling with my comrades of the fringes.
It is strange that my greatest burning desire is always to do that which is least comfortable to my personality. I wanted to sit and talk, have relationship, solidarity beyond the plate. I find that intimidating even with my beloved church family, the less familiar I am with someone the harder that is.
I am not sure to what extent this action extended beyond charity to social justice. It doesn’t seem that much was done to end the causes of hunger, but at least 371 people made it through the day without being hungry.
I have been struggling to make social justice a face to face reality, which is why I chose to go with Cliff. He is a mentor to me in doing and getting done. I had served for a few years as treasurer for the ministerial association as we tried to help families with economic crisis. I began to burn out, not only because I’m not gifted for financial upkeep, but because the money went so fast. I struggled to not place my own judgments on the request, that was the job of the pastor handling the case, but I was also frustrated that our plans to follow up with counsel and education weren’t happening either. I wonder where, and if I can really make any difference.
I am encouraged by the books I have read for my class in Christian Spirituality. They remind me that the difference must start with me. I think about the areas of my life, trying to identify the areas I can influence. With the coffeehouse I’m working on I am presented with some choices. When we go to renovate a building I can incorporate green building techniques, I can pay a living wage to the people who work there, and right now I can select coffee that has been bought at a fair trade.
Some of my people wanted to start a Bible study, that in itself is encouraging to me, but when they started talking about how an out flow of our learning the scripture should be to meet needs, I lit up. “Put skin on the Word!” I proclaimed. They liked that.