On the Receiving End

August 11th, 2021

“God never gives someone a gift they are not capable of receiving.”

– Pope Francis

Jim came over to our house on Tuesday evening. He comes here almost every Tuesday around 6:00. Jim is an older gentleman who goes to our church. He is a member of the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society, a Catholic organization which serves the poverty-stricken in our community. On Tuesdays Jim helps out at the meal program in Racine. The people at the meal program feed the poor and the homeless. At the end of the program, Jim packs up a couple meals, drives to our home, and brings us supper.

In a way it’s strange that Jim would bring food to us. Karin and I are not, by any objective standard, poor. We have a house, two cars, and every material thing we need in order to live comfortably. We do not lack money.

We lack time.

Karin and I are full time caregivers for our grandson, Asher. Asher is eight months old. He is a wonderful little boy, and we love him dearly. However, he is high maintenance. Babies are like that. We almost never have time to cook ourselves a meal. It just doesn’t happen. Jim knows that, so he brings us food.

On Tuesday Jim pulled up into our driveway while we were on our front porch. Karin was sitting in her rocking chair, holding Asher on her lap. I was standing next to her. Jim brought us two plastic grocery bags with Styrofoam containers in them. Jim smiled and handed me the bags. He looked happily at Asher and said,

“Asher always has a smile for me! I really get a kick out of that boy!”

Asher did have a wide grin on his round face. he often smiles at people.

Jim asked us how we were doing. Then he turned to leave. He shouted,

“God bless you all!”

We yelled back, “God bless you too!”

Jim got into his car and said,

“See you at church!”

The food in the Styrofoam containers was good: hot dogs, potato salad, and baked beans. It occurred to me that what Karin and I ate was exactly what a homeless person was eating that day. It made me think and remember.

Several years ago, Karin and I volunteered at a meal program, which was also run by the St. Vincent de Paul Society. This particular soup kitchen was on the south side of Milwaukee in a building that was once a library. Food was provided each evening by a variety of churches and civic organizations. At that time, Karin and I belonged to a church that served a meal on one Tuesday every month. Our church always, without fail, brought spaghetti with a meat sauce. We also brought along bread, salad, fruit, and dessert. We made sure that we had a big plastic bucket of parmesan cheese. We had to have cheese.

The folks at St. Vincent de Paul set up the serving line for us. Those of us who were from our church took positions on the line. One person served the spaghetti, one person served a salad, one person gave each guest a dessert, etc. I usually wound up serving the parmesan cheese. Once we were all at our posts, the St. Vincent de Paul people let the guests into the dining facility. It was like opening the flood gates.

It was impossible to predict how many people would come for a free meal. Sometimes only one hundred people showed up. Other nights we had almost four hundred hungry customers. We made sure that we had more than enough food, just in case traffic was heavy. But somehow, we never had enough parmesan cheese. I always had to ration that. I had to use a tiny ladle, and it never seemed like I could give out enough cheese to satisfy our guests.

The population that wanders into a meal site is eclectic. Some guests look clean and sober. Some look rough, really rough. People come to the soup kitchen for a variety of reasons, not just for the food. In winter they come in simply to have a warm place to sit for a while. Some come inside just so they don’t have to be alone. Some really like spaghetti.

When people would come to me for their dollop of parmesan, I would first ask them if they wanted any. Some didn’t. Some would say, “No, my doctor tells me that I shouldn’t eat that.” Some would just shake their heads in my direction. Some would give me a blank stare like I didn’t exist.

Most of the guests wanted the parmesan. They would say, “Hey, just spread it over the sauce. There, that’s good.” Or they would ask, “Could I get another scoop of the cheese? I really like that.”

It was hard for me to decide if I should give a guest extra cheese, because there might be a couple hundred people behind him or her. I usually ladled out a bit more to them, and then they moved on to the next station. Sometimes they got irritated and asked, “Is that all? Are you paying for it with your own money?” I tried to explain that I had to make the cheese last so that everyone would get some. Often, that reasoning made no impression on the cheese aficionado.

For a long time I wondered at how much importance these people put on a spoonful of grated cheese. It was always a big deal to them. I hard trouble understanding that.

Finally, I realized that they really didn’t give a damn about the cheese. They just wanted somebody, anybody, to care about their desires and needs. These folks had probably spent the whole day wandering the streets, where other people were doing the best to ignore their existence. Some of the guests were invisible to the rest of the world until they got into the serving line. Then somebody (me) actually saw them and heard them. For a brief moment, I cared about them, even though they were total strangers to me. These people were definitely hungry. They came into the meal site starving for respect and love.

The people at the meal site in Racine don’t know Karin and me. They feed us anyway. For a long time Karin and I gave. Now we receive.

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