Thursday, January 20, 2011

Austin Street Shelter

Austin Street Centre, where I met stark reality face to face. Sorry the photo is
not very good, but I took this with my iPhone. I could not muster
the courage to take out my SLR for a better photo.
Sunday, January 15, I was very excited and a little apprehensive. I had signed up for the Shelter ministry at my church and didn't know what to expect.

When my friend and I arrived together at the small, but efficient church kitchen, my eyes were having trouble taking in all the activity. It was hard to know where to jump in and start. It's a weakness of mine that I needed to get!

When my eyes finally adjusted, I spied two women dicing red onions on a small cart in one corner. Next I noticed six of the biggest electric cookers I've ever seen lined up on the counters with an enormous block of melting butter inside each that would make Paula Deen swoon. Before I knew it I was in front of one of those cookers and told to place 6-2/3 cans of Cream of Mushroom soup in my pot and mix with the butter. Next came huge cans of green beans, corn, and tuna. Finally, the onions were added. I was thinking the onions should have been sauteed with the butter, but I was not in charge, managing for once in my life to keep my big mouth shut. Someone went around and added milk, Worcestershire sauce, and lemon pepper to the cookers. After the mixture was the right consistency, it was time to let it all simmer.

I jumped over and helped another lady whose job it was to wash out the cans and place them inside garbage bags for recycling. Every now and then I would go over to my cooker like a mother hen, also checking on the one next to mine if it wasn't manned. It felt like a labor of love, and in some possibly irrational way I wanted my love and care to meld with the ingredients in my pot.

As the cookers simmered, four gigantic pots of water were placed on the stove in preparation for the rice. Jumbo boxes of minute rice were dumped inside of three large ice chests. Soon, the boiling water was added directly to the dry rice inside the chests, immediately after came the tuna mixture which now contained chopped, boiled eggs. I was thinking there was a lot of much-needed protein in that dish, which would be a good thing.

We loaded two SUVs with the tuna-filled chests, along with a few hundred sandwiches that had been made beforehand by various church members, and set off. On the ride over I was feeling exhausted. I didn't realize how much physical work it takes to feed 400 people.

As we waited to be let inside the gates of the shelter I was surprisingly calm. The workers at the center unloaded the cars and took everything inside for us. Once all the food was placed beside the tables we began to sort the sandwiches, putting all the like ones together. There was PB&J, ham, turkey, bologna, salami, tuna salad, and egg salad. The men and women were already lined up, eagerly awaiting what we had for them.

It was an extremely orderly, organized process. They were each allowed one sandwich and one bowl of tuna casserole. If there was food left over after everyone had a turn, they were allowed to come back for seconds. A few asked if they could have two sandwiches, even though they had been told one, so we gently reminded them of the rule, and thankfully, no issues. But I was cautioned if someone took two anyway that we shouldn't say anything.

As the people shuffled by in the line, I looked into each face, trying to get some sense as to how they used to be, and how they finally succumbed to this way of life. On some of them you could immediately guess drugs or alcohol. A face can be a road map like that. For others, it was clear they were not all there mentally. There were a few men who looked like former professionals, with somewhat new looking clothes and hairstyles, but for the most part, I surmised the majority had a hard life whether because of their own decisions or circumstances out of their control.

I wondered how many of us could have ended up the same way if we had been abused, or had an untreated mental illness, or if bad luck had dogged us for much of our life. As old as I am I still have difficulty accepting unfairness in the world. Why must there always be the Haves and the Have Nots? Or is it Haves Not? I can never get the grammar right on that. :/

Curiosity soon gave way to pity, and I hoped it didn't show. I have one of those faces that reveals my emotions, even if I don't wish to. Through it all I pasted a smile on my face, willing that it would seem genuine because I wanted to convey hope to these people. As some of them thanked us for the food, I made sure I looked them right in the eyes and said "You are so welcome" in the most loving way I knew how.

The pain and evident suffering in their eyes haunted me. Then there were the ones who could not look into our eyes, who raised their heads up just enough to receive the food...that was deeply touching. At that point I realized that it was much easier to give than to receive.

I did not write this to broadcast what a good person I am, or anything of the sort; rather, I merely wanted to document my personal experience in order to make some sense of it, if that's even possible. I think I realized that all people, regardless of their circumstances, need to be treated with respect. And we all need to help one another get through this life, because it's not easy for a lot of people. Many do not have the advantage of loving, stable homes, so we need to be there to make up the difference when possible.

John 13:34-35
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."

If we all lived by this verse, can you imagine how beautiful the world would be? Let's do it!

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