Last week I started volunteering at a local soup kitchen. It seemed a simple thing, really – handing out food to hungry people. But as I walked across the gravel lot and met the bored glances of two middle-aged men sitting in the shade outside the soup kitchen, I realized I was walking out of my comfort zone and into unfamiliar territory. Opening the heavy door that separated the street from the outreach center, I felt the labels by which I defined myself lose their substance fall to the ground, meaningless.
A volunteer greeting people at the door takes my name and tells me to “stay here” while she goes in search of Kathy, the volunteer coordinator. Around me, there is a sense of community between the volunteers and the people eating lunch – a language I’ve never had to learn. The minutes drag by and I wait, alone with my uncertainty. The woman returns. Kathy is busy; she hands me a pair of rubber gloves and motions to the tables. “You can wipe those down when people finish eating.” Four women in burgundy t-shirts, members of the church, smile and serve lunch to the people who follow me from the street.
For the next hour, I embrace my discomfort, my lack of knowing. I wipe off the cheerful red and yellow vinyl tablecloths, serve iced tea, and hand people plastic utensils wrapped in paper napkins. When my lunch hour is over and it’s time for me to return to the reality of my work day, I say goodbye to the pastor and slip unnoticed back into the street. It is a very small thing I’ve done, but something inside me remains unsettled. I can’t wait to leave my comfort zone again.
Day 2 — The same gravel lot, same heavy door. An old man with a thick Jamaican accent and a red bicycle sits outside the entrance to the soup kitchen. We recognize each other and smile. Inside, new volunteers stand at the food table, serving baked chicken, casserole and vegetables to a woman with dark, braided hair. Two girls, both with serious eyes and braided hair, follow the woman to an empty table. Most of the other tables are crowded with people eating lunch – construction workers on lunch break, two old men deep in conversation, a man with long, dark blonde hair and a short beard. We see each other, and the familiarity of recognition allows us to wave and call out hellos.
My comfort zone has been stretched, and as I pour iced tea and lemonade, as I ask the people at the tables if they need anything, I feel the beginnings of community. The man with the long hair and beard is sitting alone, and I ask him if he’d like more iced tea. A conversation blooms between us. He talks about his son, who plays guitar, his daughter, who is in high school and an artist. Suddenly, we are simply two human beings, communicating with one another, and sharing understanding.
The hour speeds by. I serve lemonade, clear tables, and stack chairs as the tables begin to clear and people make their way back into the harsh sunlight. The man with the long hair is now John. Before he leaves, he tells me I am a really nice lady. I’ve brightened his day in a small way, and it feels like the most productive thing I’ve done all day. I tell him to have a good afternoon, and that I will see him next week. The clock says it is time for me to return to work, but I linger through my goodbyes.
In the gravel lot, the Jamaican man with the bicycle rides by. “Too much heat, too much heat,” he says, and I agree. Driving back to work, I think about the soup kitchen, about the value of lemonade on a hot day, about the right all human beings should have to a full stomach. I think about John, the music teacher, his son and daughter.
And I think… this is what is meaningful in life. Beneath the superficial skin of our differences, we have the same needs. A good meal, happiness for our children, to be treated with dignity and respect. To be heard and understood.
Reaching out to another human being is a small thing… but it is everything.