“Excuse me, I was told you serve free meals here,” I said with a calm, assured tone.
“Um, yes,” replied the woman standing behind the counter dressed in a white, summery top, “but it’s not here….and I’m not sure how to direct you.”
A trainee? Volunteer? I didn’t know and didn’t care. Hunger drove me here and the woman’s uncertainty was a mere speed bump to a meal.
Another woman interjected with directions on which building I was to go to for the free meals handed out by the Good News Mission. This building in which I stood, bearing the name of the mission on its doors, was the administrative center.
A man stepped out from inside a room and kindly offered to walk me to the dining room. His name was Ken and his handshake was firm. He walked me about halfway to the building which was only a block away.
I walked toward the building, the ‘Bridge Building’ they call it, with a blank mind. Silence, for me, has ever been my stalwart defense and protective buffer against travails and troubles of numberless kinds since the age of five. Words, and actions, may fail. Silence never does.
A kindly moment of eye contact and a ‘hello’ from a stranger’s lips brought me out of silent mind. The stranger, a young man in his 20’s I’d guess, whose appearance was dirty, disheveled, but whose gesture and greeting as he passed me on the sidewalk one might ascribe to a campus minister or a sweet, suburban housewife. He felt decent and warm and not like what one might conclude by his appearance. I wondered if he had just left the Bridge Building….and if he somehow knew that was where I was headed.
As I turned the corner and approached the building I saw, in various stages of exiting and milling about, a scatter of homeless men and women. One who walked with a limp and the aid of a cane was crossing the street and told me to hurry up because the food was running out (how did he know that was what I was here for?). The years of hardship took their toll on his body but I could tell he was young, too young, maybe in his 30’s. I was touched by his counsel.
In front of the door stood a man whose skin the had sun-baked into a deep, Southwest brown. He wore tinted glasses, a bright, white t-shirt and blue, denim shorts. I asked him about free food and he exhorted me to hurry inside as he feared the food was all gone.
“It’s ok,” I said as I started to turn to leave, not because I thought he was right but because it now felt so wrong. Shame in my chest now wrestled against the hunger in my stomach, vying for primacy of my mind and will. But neither one won…it was his kindness in pushing me toward the serving station that won out.
The room could seat a couple hundred at least. With its bland white, picnic-style tables and bench seats it looked like any other institutional dining room such as you might find in a public school or a hospital. It was filled with the white noise of voices – men and women mostly and some children here and there. I avoided looking at the mass of people, afraid of making eye contact and being recognized. My ego didn’t really care about being recognized, which would have happened anyway by being seen and somehow standing out. It just didn’t want to know – to be aware! – that it was being recognized.
The serving trays, all empty now except for whatever stains and sauces remained in them, were ready to be scrubbed and put away for the next day’s holding duty. I was disheartened. I asked the server, who had the rough look of someone well-acquainted with the hardships of street life, if they had any food to spare.
“Sure, brother, there’s still food for you. All we got left is pork and baked beans but you’re welcome to it.”
“Yes, please,” I answered, gladdened and humbled by his overbearing warmth, as if I had no choice but to be served and fed.
“Grab a tray and I’ll get some for you.” His hair was slicked back in streaks of gray and white, plastered to his head underneath his hairnet. He scooped up 2 heaping helpings of pulled pork and baked beans and he plopped 2 hot dog buns onto an institutional food tray, the kind with compartments carved into it for holding different food items.
I thanked him aloud and blessed him with a silent prayer. I took the very first seat closest to where I stood, wanting to be invisible to everyone in the room. I ate. I ate, feeling weighed down under the heavy covering of a lifetime of my own shame and embarrassment, hiding all of it and sharing all of it, too. Hiding because I learned to hide within walls of shame, and sharing with other hearts in hopes of discovering that divine life that we all share under our all-too-human covering.
Neil Young said it best:
I want to live,
I want to give
I’ve been a miner
for a heart of gold
It’s these expressions
I never give
That keep me searching
for a heart of gold
And I’m getting old
Keeps me searching
for a heart of gold
And I’m getting old.
As I ate I tuned my ears to hear what was around me. Two women sat opposite each other at the other end of the table where I took my seat. Their voices were the first ones I picked up out of the din of noise filling the room.
The one was counseling the other, talking about God. God’s love and God’s grace. A sincere earnestness accented every word and tone spoken by the ‘counselor’ as she made every attempt to comfort and encourage the other woman whose face was the picture of despair and dejection. The ‘counselor’ read the words of a church song, ‘Thy Will Be Done’ and she struggled to read through the lyrics chosen, evidently, for their poignancy and relevance. She fought back her tears and I could feel her pain. It was only then that I felt my own pain, a mixture of shame, sadness, dejection and compassion. A grieving lump rose in my throat, Eating and swallowing became almost impossible.
I blessed the two women and their exchange with a silent prayer.
I returned my attention to my food, more as an attempt to gather my composure than anything having to do with the food itself.
“Funny,” I said to myself, “I had shunned pork for decades as a biblical ‘unclean’ and unhealthful food and here I am eating it, giving thanks for it, blessing it, and blessing others as I eat it.”
Hunger has the power to straighten any line and shift any belief, I thought. When you’re hungry there is no shame so shameful, no edict so prohibitive that hunger cannot overcome.
I now felt emboldened, and humbled, to lift up my eyes to survey the room. Humanity is beautiful, I thought to myself. Sick, addicted, lame, dirty, despairing, depressed….yet, celebrating, laughing, sharing, rejoicing, blessing, giving, receiving….all of the Human experience was captured by my seeing and it was beautiful.
Black, white, brown. Big, fat, small, thin. Crooked and straight, sickly and well. Weakness and power. Human and Divine. Heaven and Hell. It was all here, naked to my seeing, now that I chose to see…to be aware!
I could only cry now, the tears finding a trickle here and there, salting my food with the bitter-sweetness of life.
I saw the face of God, the face of Creator, the face of Mother and Father, the face of the Most High/the Most Within….in every face, heard it in every voice, and smelled it in the stench of our shared tribulations in this mission hall. I saw and felt Creator in the very ones whom society deems unfit to look upon with kindness and compassion, much less receive consideration of any kind.
Here, here in this mission, where I, Sariyd, I, Richard, I Rich (man, how Rich!), now sit as one of the homeless on this Earth we all call home….here I saw and felt in myself the same God, the same Heaven, the same Hell….and I could choose to submit myself, my seeing, to either mode at any time so that what was once prohibited is now blessed and what was once ugly and cursed is now beautiful and blessed.
And today, on August 15th, on my 48th completion around the Sun, I chose to (re)enter the kingdom of heaven (again) consciously, humbly, thankfully….in silence.