Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Food for thought

I packed a lunch the first time I went on a Street Retreat with the Faithful Fools. While I considered myself comfortable in the Tenderloin, I knew I wasn't going to eat at one of the soup kitchens. I don't remember anymore the precise reasons I gave myself not to, but when I hear others give them, they sound familiar: the food will be bad, I don't want to eat food someone who really needs it might, they won't have anything that meets my dietary requirements, I don't want to waste time standing in line I could use doing something more useful or interesting. 
Of course, there's always fear: the dining halls that serve hungry people for free are almost always out of view – in basements or behind windowless walls or fences. Until we go into one, we don't really know what happens there, who eats there, or what they eat. When we go in as a volunteer, we get to see some of this, but our name sticker or apron and permission to stand behind the counter – our identity as a server rather than guest or client – shows us a different side of the experience.

In the twelve years since that first Retreat, I have partaken in free food offered by dozens of organizations in San Francisco and around the U.S., and I find myself reflecting on these experiences now that the Fools and I have committed to support Welcome in its work to provide food and hospitality to people every Tuesday and two Saturdays per month. The experience I've had at each meal is as varied as the people who serve it.
One of my favorite places to eat for free lies behind a tall, nondescript fence on a busy street. If you arrive early, you are handed a number and can sit on a rock in the garden as you wait for your group to be called. There's always a vegetarian soup and a fresh salad, and when there's another soup with meat, or croutons for the salad, the volunteers will ask if you want some before serving you. A little out of the way, and serving a somewhat specialized fare, the few hundred who eat there each day are treated to a comparatively quiet space where the chairs never seem to all fill, encouraging lingering.
Programs that feed thousands a day don't have those same luxuries – when a line wraps around a city block, it doesn't make sense to have guests just sit and chat. Larger programs also tend to find efficiencies in serving the food as well. Trays are usually uniformly filled assembly-line style and passed with a smile to guests who then go looking for a seat. One morning at a large feeding program, I was dismayed to discover my bagel was slightly moldy. I felt worse upon looking around the table and seeing that mine was the least moldy bagel at the table. I was struck that each tray was passed through the hands of three volunteers after being filled, before reaching the guest's hands. Was there a moment when any volunteer asked “will the person who gets this tray want to eat it?”
Hungry people get fed when someone realizes there is a need, and finds a way to meet it. This means feeding people in the space available, which can be a church basement entered via long passages and stairways revealing the pipes and inner-workings of the building, a space built for the purpose of feeding people, or sometimes outside in a park, square, or sidewalk. After finding a closed door at an address I found on a free food list in New York City, I waited on the steps outside a train station until a van drove up and handed out baloney sandwiches, punch, and an apple to those of us gathered. 
One of my favorite food programs says “This is not charity. This is a protest!” and feeds hundreds in view of City Hall with discards collected from stores and restaurants – at its best we get organic soup and salad, at worst it's been a bucket of oatmeal that arrives (still welcome by hungry stomachs) an hour late.
One time, while standing in line for another meal, I saw a man dancing in a flowing straw mask to a couple of drummers while others walked away from this surprising ritual with plates heaped with colorful fragrant fare. Over the years, this unique group has grown, both in guests and volunteers, but the founder continues his practice of walking down the line, and taking each person's hand as he looks them in the eye and says “Happy Tuesday!” His spiritual practice extends to fasting each Tuesday until all guests are fed, and the love he expresses in the songs of gratitude he sings throughout the meal is a nourishing of the soul as the food he shares from his homeland is of the body.
We all have eaten food from someone else's kitchen – maybe a friend's, a family member's, a restaurant's, or a soup kitchen's - and from that know the difference between a great meal and something that just filled our stomach. When you are hungry, a full stomach can be a great thing, but the exchange of care and love provides a lasting nourishment those who come to eat as well as those who offer the meal.
As we serve our meals at Welcome, we reflect on the ingredients that make up a great meal: What can we serve that is healthy? That tastes good? How does our preparation show the care we feel for our guests? How do we stay centered in our role as hosts? How do we encourage politeness and comfort among both guests and hosts? How do we help everyone feel Welcome?

Join us for a meal sometime! Tuesdays 2-4pm. 2nd and 4th Saturdays 5:30-7pm.

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