Most of us in the Western world like Saturday better than the other six days of the week. It’s the day you get to sleep in, run errands, hang around the house, and then camp out for a night with friends, family, or just a good book. You generally don’t have to be anywhere at any specific time, and it’s the day you recreate the hardest.
I, as an overly busy lunatic, seem to schedule something for Saturday without fail. My thought is that if I can get it done before my wife wakes up, it doesn’t count as an interruption to our lives. This last Saturday was no exception, as I’d volunteered months ago to help a friend with the Good Neighbor Meal she was sponsoring.
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A week before the meal, I sent her a message wondering what we’d be cooking. Her reply was that she wasn’t cooking anything, but another group had to take the slot – her group fell through. Happens all the time.
Now, faced with a Saturday off, I had to consider my options. One thing weighed on my mind: I’d told others that I’d be there, and some of them might show up for their first volunteer experience, and I wouldn’t be there to show them the ropes. Not exactly leading by example. So I resolved to go, but to cut it short and get some other things done that day.
Saturday morning was cold. Around zero. I knew we’d have a big crowd of people who were hungry and hurting. Consequently, I got there early to help with setup. It was just me and the person in charge of the building for meals at first. We have both worked together for years, so we got going without any adult supervision, making sure the hardest/most time-consuming things were at the front of the list. It’s how you do it after countless meals, knowing that your volunteers will trickle in, but that coffee won’t perk any faster once they are there to make it happen. Got to do it first.
With every plate now in the air, I moved to the stage in the fellowship room, and started sorting the donated clothing. At the foot of the stage, out of sight of the doorway, there was a big fellow curled up in the fetal position. I’d never seen him before, but it was clear that he was exhausted – and frostbitten. Badly frostbitten. I talked to him without touching him, because the last thing he needed in life was another stranger laying hands on him. Life living rough is dangerous, and your personal space is to be defended with whatever you have available. He wasn’t too interested in the sweaters, but he did need gloves. Lost his.
I’m no medic, but I took a look at his hands – they were pretty bad, but not yet infected. He had little interest in seeing a doctor anyway, not the kind of thing guys like him did. I had no gloves in the donations that morning. Good gloves are rarely part of the haul. Lots of old sweatshirts, plenty of jeans for smaller adults, but good gloves and hats are not common. I’d brought a bunch of hats in that morning, but….
“Hang on a minute. I’ll go get you some.”
I grabbed a pair of leather mittens from my coat pocket and came back. They were all broken in and ready to wear. I had some thin inner-gloves that I could wear for the day, I didn’t have far to go to a replacement pair. This poor soul had nothing but what he’d worn in the door.
With my drink cart loaded up, and an able young assistant by the name of Joe *the best name in the whole world* I made my rounds. A great part of what we do is simple kindness and love. Yes, the hot meal and the drinks are a part of it, but being good to your guests, and welcoming them, is where you set the tone. My goal is to never let them be unnoticed longer than just a minute. I try to spot them as they come in the door, welcome them, and get them a cup of coffee, a glass of water, or some milk before they can even take off their coat. I’ve known a lot of them for several years, and I don’t even have to ask what they want. I also know to push the water this time of year, as sub-zero temperatures mask the symptoms of dehydration.
Several times as I served a cup of coffee, talked about the events of the world, or just smiled at one of my old friends, I felt the presence of God in that room. I was full of the Holy Spirit as I made my rounds. No doubt about it, I knew I was in the right place that morning.
As we were finishing up the preparation of the meal (*great crew in the kitchen who didn’t need me butting in*) I looked up from my cart and saw Benjamin. (Not his real name.)
Tears welled up in my eyes immediately. You see, I know Ben from my life outside the meals. I’ve been praying for him for over a decade, as I’ve watched him descend into a spiral from drugs and alcohol. I know the toll it’s taken on his life, and while I would regularly get mad at him for his folly, I would far more often pray for him when he crossed my mind. And he was on my mind often. I know that I could be Ben. Very easily.
Ben offered me his hand and smiled. He was there with a recovery group, and this was part of his service role. I brushed the hand aside and hugged him. All I could say was “I’ve been praying for you for a long time, Dude.” I had hope for him and his sobriety. I know it’s a long road for addicts, but he’d pretty much hit bottom and had checked himself in to be treated.
A few minutes later I was asked to give the blessing over the meal – something that continues to amaze me. I don’t think of myself as a “Holy Joe”, or even a very good Christian most of the time. Yet I am always glad to pray with others.
We all took our places and served our guests. That simple meal of Sloppy Joes (*strangely appropriate*) and green beans was well received. I saw nothing but smiles, and a lot of requests for seconds. Once our guests had been served, I grabbed a plate and sat with some of them. Excellent flavor, a hint of pepper and just enough sauce. I lingered over that glass of milk, and watched the teams cleaning up.
As I got ready to leave, I went back over by the stage. Back in the same place now that the meal was complete, my rough-living friend was curled up in a ball under a donated sleeping bag. All you could see was his head poking out from under the sleeping bag – and those warm mittens.
You may not realize it, but by volunteering to do things like this meal, you commit yourself more fully to Christ, and can even save the lives of others. Please send me a comment if you live in the Twin Cities and you’d like to help with one of our meals. I’ll get in touch with you. Then, you too, can enjoy the blessing that I felt as I walked to the elevator and headed out into the cold. There was no warmer place than my heart at that moment, and I’m glad that I listened to God and went in to help even though it wasn’t my turn. Because, if you’re listening closely enough, it’s always your turn.
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