Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A Tale of Two Meals

The story of my weekend takes place in two very different corners of the same city. Despite the fact that only 11 miles separate them, the paths of those who walk in the first world seldom cross those of the people in the second world. My feet had the opportunity to step into both worlds, though, and my thoughts haven't been the same since. Let me share with you A Tale of Two Meals...

Meal #1: 
Saturday Evening, April 5th

From the quietness of the small kitchen, I looked around the crowded church basement, full of people who had likely suffered more in their lives than I could even imagine. Men, women, and children of all ages squished together around six circular folding tables. I wondered about their stories. From talking with B, the volunteer coordinator for this facility, I knew that the people seated before me struggled and suffered in ways that I never have. Some were former drug addicts and alcoholics, on the road to recovery. Others may have been still enslaved to their addictions. Most, if not all, of them were unable to break free from the chains of poverty. A midst their differences, they all shared one common thread: they were residents of Franklinton, a neighborhood considered to be one of the largest "white slums" in America, and they had come to this ministry house to receive grace and hope in the form of a friendly smile and a free, family-style meal.

Only forty minutes earlier, they had all quickly filed into the church basement after waiting patiently outside until the doors opened promptly at 5:20, just as they do every Saturday at this inner city church. The neighborhood residents had entered the room quickly, moving with haste with their spouses, friends, neighbors, and children, to secure a seat around one of the six tables. Their eyes widened as they looked at the family-style meal we had prepared for them earlier that day. As they awaited permission to begin eating, loud conversation filled the air.

At 5:30 on the dot, after a few brief announcements, an invitation to attend a Celebrate Recovery meeting after the meal, an introduction of our volunteer team, and a prayer, B told the 52 attendees that they could now partake of the dinner that was set before them.

While I stood in the kitchen, watching for iced tea pitchers that needed to be refilled, I noticed that the booming conversations I heard only moments before had been replaced by a quiet chatter, as our guests' focus shifted from the people around the table to the food on their plates. They buttered their rolls, dished out servings of green beans, savored some homemade macaroni salad, and licked their lips to taste the tender rotisserie chicken.

"It's all about the food," B explained to us later. "We're trying to make it more about the relationships, but it's still all about the food."

It made sense to me. If I didn't know where my next meal would come from, that would be my focus, too. I hadn't considered it before, but I later realized that focusing on relationships and conversation while in the presence of a warm meal is a luxury that is only afforded to those who don't spend many of their days hungry.

A few minutes later, just as quickly as they had entered, they vanished, returning home or heading upstairs to attend the Celebrate Recovery meeting. Not a bite of the dinner remained. Every spoonful of leftovers that could be salvaged was packaged in a takeaway box and sent home with several of the families.

Although the next hour was a bustle of sweeping, mopping, wiping, washing, and cleaning, my mind later drifted back to the faces of these Franklinton families. I wondered about them again. Where would they get meals on the other 6 days of the week, when this outreach ministry did not provide one? What would the future be like for these individuals? What about their children? How would they fare in school? And after that? What would it take to help these families to finally break free of their chains? And more importantly, who would help them do it? 

Meal #2: 
Sunday Morning, April 6th 

I stood at end of a large, L-shaped table covered with food. Before me lay a wide, delicious-looking assortment of breakfast pastries, bagels, donuts, casseroles, and fruit. Across the room, another table offered just about any breakfast beverage one could hope for: coffee, tea, orange juice, apple juice, and even chocolate milk. All of this was for our Sunday School class potluck.

As I took a paper plate and began to choose from the abundance of goodies, my thoughts floated back to the meal we had served at the inner city church less than 24 hours prior. The faces of our Franklinton families came to life in my mind's eye, but were interrupted by a whirlwind of comments around me:

"Wow! Look at all of this food!"

"This looks delicious!"

"Whoa...who made that casserole? It smells amazing!"

"Homemade pancakes? With bacon in them? Sweet!" 

"Um, I'm pretty sure we are going to have enough food! There is so much stuff here!"

While I listened to the voices around me, I finished filing through the buffet line, eyeing all of the food that lay at my disposal. A twinge of guilt pierced my heart as I took my seat and looked at my plate full of fresh berries and cinnamon-topped bread. Once again, I imagined the crowded room of families I had seen the night before. This meal would have been beyond the comprehension of those people. It would probably be a dream come true for them. I considered bringing this up as a topic of conversation, but chickened out for fear of seeming like a "downer" or making everyone around me feel guilty. I pushed the visions out of my mind temporarily, and focused on my friends seated around the table.

For the next hour, the large fellowship hall was full of laughter, chattering, and story-telling. By the end of the Sunday School hour, our bellies were all a bit bigger than when we had first entered the room that morning, but somehow the buffet table remained well-stocked. Leftovers abounded.

Soon, the clean-up process began, and all around me there was a flurry of washing, packaging, and organizing. When the frenzy subsided, faces once again plagued my mind, and thoughts swirled through my brain at lightning speed.

What would the people I met last night have thought if they saw our Sunday School brunch? How thankful would they have been if they could partake in a seemingly unlimited amount of food? How thankful were we as we enjoyed it this morning? Did we even think about how blessed we were, or did we take it for granted? What's more, how could I rightly sit and enjoy such a massive display of food this morning, when just last night I saw with my own eyes the tremendous need that exists in our very own city? How do I balance the enjoyment of a surplus of food with a desire to help those who have nothing? I know that there is nothing objectively wrong with having a big potluck, with more food than a room of people could possibly eat in one sitting, but in light of what I saw last night, doing so leaves me feeling conflicted. 
As I write my slice today, I think back to the events of A Tale of Two Meals.  Since the Sunday brunch, I have had a total of 7 meals. I did not worry about where any of that food would come from. Nor did I consider whether I would be able to financially afford to satisfy my hunger. Yet, the people of Franklinton I met on Saturday evening can probably not make the same claim, and the realization of that unsettles my heart. What I am supposed to do about this? Sure, I can volunteer with my church on the first Saturday of the month and help provide one meal of the 90 those people will need in a month. But that seems so small and insignificant. Shouldn't I be doing more? And if so, what?

I wish I had a better conclusion for my tale, but as of now, I am still looking for the right ending, and trying to discern what my role in that story should be.