Thursday, July 3, 2008

I'll Be There For You

One of the things that I always thought was cool about the BMIFC was that each local club had its own philanthropy or charity - even before it was "cool" to be charitable or green or whatever today's buzzword is. I was perusing the Manilow Fund website and when I noticed that homelessness is one of the fund's foci, it brought back quite a few memories.

If I learned anything over the years about charity it's that when you help people in need, you'll do more good all around by serving up some dignity with it. Pride may go before a fall if you've read Proverbs lately but it's one of the things that separates us from the animals and drives us to be better human beings.

I also thought of this because the summer is the time when everyone is focusing on BBQ and vacations and the beach. Homeless ministries have the lowest resources at this time of year. Everyone thinks that Christmas or Thanksgiving, or even Easter is the time to be charitable to the homeless and hungry. Got a flash for ya, kids: people are hungry all year around.

In college I had a calculus prof who claimed to offer extra credit in exchange for joining a group from his church that worked at a soup kitchen on weekends. The extra credit offer was bullshit but it got our attention and piqued our interest. It took a lot to convince 19-year-olds to drag themselves out of bed early on a Saturday or Sunday morning.

I got to this itty bitty little independent non-denominational church in the worst part of town at 8 AM for my first visit and orientation. Squat little building, perfectly round. No windows. You'd never know this was a church if my prof wasn't flagging me down as I stepped around the winos in the gutter and trying to ignore the knife fight two alleyways over.

This was no ordinary weekend soup kitchen. The church's fellowship hall in the basement was set up as if for some kind of social function. About 10 or 12 of the usual round tables, 10 seats per, paper tablecloths and a cheap vase of plastic flowers on each.

The director had a little sit-down with all of the new recruits. There were things that we needed to know before we began serving our guests. Not clients. Not homeless. DEFINITELY not bums. Guests. This kitchen worked on the premise that if you treat all comers as you would the mayor of the town, that is exactly how they will behave and not only will they benefit from a hot meal, their hopes and spirits will lift as well. That alone could be the key to survival and a better life.

There was no security here. I mean none. The priest who used to be in the Marines didn't count. Armed thugs tended to reduce the "guest" experience. In the 10 or so years the kitchen had been running to that point the director claimed that there had been only three "knock-down-drag-outs" ever, and none recently. See the point above about treating people as guests and that is how they would behave.

We all got to work cooking in the main kitchen during the rest of our pep talk. The director was the maitre d'. He would escort a guest to an open seat and a plate of dinner was prepared and served. No herding people through a cafeteria like cattle through a chute. After working as a sous chef prepping the meal I was assigned to be a waitress. Big shocker, that was one of my regular college jobs.

Doors open, and clients come in and are seated. The director was right - people didn't behave like they lived on the street when they came into this place. I picked up a styrofoam dinner plate and plastic utensils and served like I did in my regular restaurant job. I didn't think "service with a smile" would carry that far. There was real gratitude for a freshly-made hot meal. There are no words, it's so intangible that you have to experience it - really get in and get involved with people - to see what I"m talking about.

I was pretty hooked. I spent most Saturday mornings for the next school year there. It was just like my regular restaurant job except I got no tips. Shitty tips would have been an improvement! My work was returned to me in other ways. Later on that semester I found myself hopelessly lost in that part of town. My hackles were up and I was really scared. A couple of the regulars saw me and escorted me back to the nearest subway station with the stern admonishment to get my "skinny ass back to school!" I was being stalked and a moment away from being mugged and worse when my customers found me. We volunteers edified each other too in this work. Toward Easter, the director realized that the Christian volunteers would need that particular Sunday off, so word was sent out to the synagogues to send extra volunteers on Easter Sunday "so that our Christian friends can celebrate their high holy day." So many volunteers showed up that many had to be turned away.

Like every other college kid I went home for the summer while school was out. When I came back, I learned that the ministry struggled to feed the regulars because there were fewer volunteers. Ever since I wondered, "Why do we wait until Christmas to be charitable?" People are hungry now.

So this July 4 and throughout the summer, while you're having BBQ and picnics, try to remember that the hungry are in greatest need this time of year. Community pantries start to get empty, school lunch programs are suspended because school is out, and people just "forget" because we're so tuned to giving to others during Christmas.

Here's a thought - especially for BMIFC chapters looking for a philanthropic project: how about a Fourth of July food drive for a local pantry or soup kitchen or shelter next year. It will have a much greater impact than waiting until the Christmas holidays.

In Honor of Lieutenant Nathaniel Tibbets, Jr
my Great-Great-Great-Great Grandfather
1740 - 1817
Continental Army of Massachusetts, 1776

The Soldier

It is the soldier, not the reporter,
who has given us freedom of the press.

It is the soldier, not the poet,
who has given us freedom of speech.

It is the soldier, not the campus organizer,
who has given us the freedom to demonstrate.

It is the soldier, not the lawyer,
who has given us the right to a fair trial.

It is the soldier,
who salutes the flag,
who serves under the flag,
and whose coffin is draped by the flag,
who allows the protester to burn the flag.

By Father Dennis Edward O'Brien, USMC

No comments:

Post a Comment