A “feeding”… That’s what it’s called. They say we “feed” in the parks, or the streets, or whatever. It stings my ears every time I hear it. I have flashbacks to life in a small town with livestock and perceive the people in line at the park being discussed as though they are animals at the trough. Tonight we are “feeding.”
I walked across the parking lot willing to Love everyone… Most of the people who talk like that don’t know any better. But I did recently decide that I wasn’t going to hold back if I felt the urge to mention a truth… I no longer pray that God bridles my tongue, I pray that he releases it for those that need to hear, and I pray that he provides the Love and the tact to make it stick.
The tables were being set up and the food was being laid out. The man who invited us this morning introduced us to an elaborately dressed woman who looked ready for a night on the town. She’s in charge, from what I understand. He told her that we live in our truck, and she blinked a few times and said “ooOh.” That was the extent of our conversation, unless you count the few seconds of staring, so I don’t have too much to say about that… other than another question. Who was she so dressed up for? Or was that just to make sure that everyone knew that she wasn’t one of us…
We brought pints of milk to add to the feast, and I was asked to serve cake. I was incredibly excited. Cake is the best part. I took my place in the line and Shane stood next to me alongside a man who was designated to serve the coffee.
Now I have to interrupt for a moment to discuss this little lady named Trina. When the pastor dude (we’ll call him Jeff) had introduced me to the well dressed lady, a woman spoke up from behind me and introduced herself. “Hi, I’m Trina!” I turned to look, (because I didn’t really want to play the staring game with the dressed up lady) and saw an incredibly petite black woman wearing a lavender knit hat. Her eyes were the most peaceful shade of dark green. She smiled at me. I introduced myself and she said she was just waiting for coffee. I glanced at the pot and nodded…
So when the coffee was ready to be served (about 10 minutes later) Trina was, of course, the first person standing in front of the pot. The line hadn’t made it down to our end of the table yet, and she was alone. She asked coffee-man for a cup. I won’t easily forget what happened next.
“You have to get in line.” He said.
“I don’t need food, I ate at the shelter. I just want coffee.” She calmly replied.
“This coffee is only for the people going through the line.” He said without looking at her.
“But I’ve been waiting all this time, and I don’t want to take your food if I’m not going to eat it.” She told him. Her eyes were large and pleading.
I’m not sure if he was misunderstanding her… I’m just not sure. But he lashed out. “Look, I paid for most of this stuff out of my own pocket, lady. I get to decide what to do with it, and it’s for the people in line.” He waved his hand in her face as if you say “go away.”
I don’t think he ever looked her in the eye. She lifted her head and looked from Shane to me. Her eyes were hurting. She let out a whimper from her 4 foot frame. “I just…” I was frozen. Unfortunately I have the witness curse, and I often wait to watch an event unfold. Looking back, I wish I had grabbed the damn cup and slapped that coffee-man. But I didn’t. Instead I just stood there, and watched, with my mouth hanging open…
Another woman who had gone through the line walked up behind Trina and asked for a cup of coffee. He handed her one. Trina was just staring at him and the coffee pot with a wounded expression and he didn’t have much choice. “Here, now scram!” he said as he handed her a cup and waived his hand in her face one more time. It wasn’t necessary. As soon as the cup was in her hand, she was gone.
The next hour was a barrage of opportunity. There were 200 people having a rough day, standing in front of me for a second so that I could place a piece of cake on their plate. I did my best to add some Love, and make everyone smile. I had a 5 second window to give a laugh, a light, a better day. It’s why I’m there. Like my friend Elaine says, it’s not about the physical food. It’s about the Love that comes with it.
Trina came through the line with just the tiniest amount of salad on her plate. It was probably a teaspoon full. She hadn’t accepted anything else in the line, and I’m certain that she just needed more coffee but couldn’t take any more abuse from coffee-man. She did stop in front of me for a piece of cake, though. Our eyes locked for a moment, and I wanted to make her laugh so bad… “God, don’t let this woman leave the table feeling like that again, not this time.” I prayed. Sure enough, I can’t really tell you what I said other than telling her that she’s a nice lady, but she responded “So are you…” as coffee-man placed a cup in her hands. She didn’t take her eyes off of me. “We should start a club!” she said as she walked away. She glanced at Coffee-man and laughed.
Immediately after we served, the small crew of volunteers began cleaning up. One of them had pointed out a small, skinny kid, and I noticed that he took his food behind a van to share dinner with an older man that used a cane. They separated themselves from the crowd, and I was curious. When the volunteers placed bagels on the table and told everyone that they could take what they want, the kid started digging through the bag for these dark wheat bagels… I went to the truck to get plastic bags. What are people supposed to do with it if they don’t have something to carry it in? Plastic bags are a must-have item…
When I came back, I asked his name and age. Turns out that Vaughn had just found himself on the street the day before, and the old man named Jesse had taken him under his wing. He showed him where to sleep and eat and everything. Vaughn is 22, but he looks 15. When I asked him how he ended up out here, he told me that he is a veteran, and when he got out a few months ago he ended up working in construction. He lost his job about 6 weeks ago, and when he wasn’t getting a paycheck, his grandparents kicked him out. He found his way to 4th and Record. I asked him what would help him the most right now, and he said he needed work. I told him not to be arrogant and to take any job he could find. “But I want construction,” he said. I told him to get over it. It’s a recession, and jobs that require ‘building’ aren’t exactly in high demand. Take the crap job for the time being. Get your ass off the street. It seems like simple advice, but society tells us that minimum wage jobs are for high school kids… taking one would be like shouting “I’m not good enough” to the world.
When one of the volunteers interrupted us to invite him to church tonight, I started walking away. I paused when I heard Vaughn’s response. “Why? What’s at church?” he asked with a confused smirk. “Is there a job there?” I laughed as I walked toward Jesse.
“Why did you take an interest in this kid?” I asked him after I had introduced myself.
“He can’t be out here alone. There are too many predators man. I’ve got him set up…” he told me.
Jesse stays at the shelter across the lot, and he set it up so that Vaughn could sleep in the community room. He brings him a pillow and a blanket, and Vaughn says that he checks on him every hour. “There’s hope for him,” he said. “I’ve been out here more than 20 years, and I’ve got this whole thing figured out. But that kid, he needs to get out of here…”
As we spoke, the pastor interrupted us to tell me that the group wanted to pray for me. I realized that in about 10 minutes flat, the entire event had been packed up and the group was ready to go. I looked at Jesse and Vaughn and seriously considered rejecting Jeff’s prayer. This was more important. But Vaughn just rolled his eyes and Jesse waved me that direction, as if to say “go, it’s okay.”
We stood in a circle, with well-dressed lady in front of me. Thank God Shane had invited an older man named Robert into the prayer. Damn, I braced myself as I saw the ridiculous circumstances of this prayer. Everyone was holding hands in a closed circle, in the middle of a parking lot full of desperate, hopeless, unloved and traumatized people… but who did they pray with? Who did they pray for? Each other…. I wanted to scream into the sky “Does anyone else here need some prayer?!?!” but I was frozen. Again… that damn witness curse. I just watched as it happened. The well-dressed lady grinned and giggled through her bright red lipstick when they told God “thank you” for her. She actually wiggled with glee….
Our circle had quite literally turned our physical backs to the need for Love that surrounded us. I was disgusted. When the prayer broke I tried to run away. I went back to Vaughn. “What do you need?” I asked him. The words of Isaiah 58 were pounding in my ears… something in my brain was searching for a scripture that said that if you give food without love it’s worth nothing… I was boiling. When Vaughn answered that he needs work, and a bed at the shelter, I asked him how he felt about a couch. His eyes got really big and I told him to hang on for just a second. I ran back to Jeff.
“Dude, do you have a couch?” I asked him. “Yeah!” he answered. “Do you and Shane need a place to stay? We would Love to have you!!” he said. I wasn’t expecting that. Perfect. “No, not for me…” I stared at him blankly. I pointed through the crowd. “For that kid over there. His name is Vaughn, he’s 22, tiny guy.”
“Oooh” Jeff said as he followed the line of my outstretched finger. “Noooo.” there was a pause as we both processed that. He swallowed and turned back to face me. “but I can find him a couch. I can find him one.” He said quickly.
“Fine, do you have a pen? I’ll go get a phone number for you…” I said. I’ll take whatever I can get. He gave me a pen, but 20 seconds later as I was writing Vaughn’s number on my arm in black ink, he drove away. I guess he needed to be back at the church…
I was so disappointed as I watched Vaughn walk into the shelter. Standing in the parking lot alone, the last volunteer called my name. Wouldn’t you know, it was Coffee-man. He asked if I wanted to take the rest of the bagels to give away. I agreed, and he grabbed one of the bags. He followed me as we walked toward the truck. Nothing was said. I was thinking about Trina’s green eyes, and Vaughn’s phone number on my arm. Something was welling up inside me.
He broke the silence. “Some people don’t like these programs. They say that we’re just contributing… or something like that.”
“”Enabling” is the operative word,” my sarcasm was dripping from my speech. I was just at that point. “And there may be some truth to that.”
Coffee-man shrugged. “I do it because it makes me feel good,” he said. Did it make you feel good to yell at lavender-hat-lady? I wanted to yell at him. Something else slipped through my mental filter. “And is that a selfish reason? I don’t know.”
Where did that come from? Giving does make us feel good. It’s the number one reason why people give. It’s why I gave for a long time. But it doesn’t always…. Sometimes it sucks. Like when we give to greed, or injustice. Even accidentally. When we give to addiction and hatred. That doesn’t feel so good. And we can’t always control that. The greed one is hard. I remember the first time I watched Shane deal with greed. He gave, and gave. We were in Jackson Mississippi, and he was so bummed out after word… So discouraged, I just hugged him for a long time. Being taken advantage of is an unfortunate part of servitude. It doesn’t feel so good, but we do it because we are giving to God, not man.
I offended Coffee-man, and he started to say goodbye. I quickly changed the subject so that I could redeem myself. I started asking him questions about himself, and he moved away from his truck. I discovered that this opportunity to serve happens four times a week, and he and well-dressed lady cook all the food. He even got on food stamps so that he could support the effort. I encouraged him, and his body language relaxed. I don’t know where it came from. I even stuttered at first, but my voice was strong and firm. I heard myself say “dude, but look around! The last person came through the line maybe 15 or 20 minutes ago, and it looks like it never happened. Everyone is already gone! Where’s the Love?”
I continued to talk about social services and the attitude with which we give until I realized that somewhere I had either lost him completely or overloaded his brain. His eyes were big and his smile was frozen on. I paused, and he said “ooookay…” the way I say it when I think someone is losing it. Great. He thinks I’m crazy. My eye caught a movement over his shoulder and I noticed a homeless guy named Don was nodding behind him as he watched our encounter. At least somebody understands my frustration.
After Coffee-man said goodbye, I walked back to the truck with Shane. We both rushed to explain the stories of the people we had met, but before Shane could turn the ignition key, he froze. I followed his gaze out the window. “He’s comin back,” he said as we watched Coffee-man pull up next to us. I was confused… I thought for sure I had scared him away. I rolled the window down. “Hey! Did they get y’all set up with a place to stay?”
“No, but we’re okay dude. We had a friend help us out the other night, so we’re golden.” I told him. He prodded. “Are you sure? Shower, Laundry, whatever you need…”
I shook my head no. “We’re fine, but thank you!” I said out the window. I might have taken him up on it if we didn’t have more plans for the evening “Oookay,” He said as he rolled up the window. He sounded genuinely disappointed, and I hesitated. As he started backing away, I caught my breath. I looked at Shane. “Wait….” I opened the door and jumped out of the truck. He was already behind us when I darted toward him. He rolled the window back down. “We’re fine,” I said while I pointed over my shoulder at the truck. “But there is a parking lot full of people over there, and I’m sure someone could use a shower or something,” I said while I pointed at the phone number on my arm.
“Oooh,” he nodded at me and glanced at the parking lot. “Nooo… I was just offering.”
My shoulders slumped as I watched the window roll up. Ok. I watched him drive away before I turned around. I was disappointed but not surprised at all. It seems that according to both Jeff and Coffee-Man, Shane and I are incredibly different than the people in the parking lot. The only problem is that I know better…