Few weeks ago, we helped prepare and serve a meal at a local homeless shelter. This was new territory for me, like visiting a strange country.
Truthfully, my own life of wealth left me feeling lacking. What did I know of their days; of the choice and challenge they faced in each one of them?
I neither knew what it was like to be homeless, or to be hungry. I’ve not suffered an addiction, nor have I endured the anxiety of mental illness. I have not felt the sting of society’s rejection, or the pain of being overlooked.
What must it be like to face uncertainty every day? How could I understand suffering when I have not suffered?
So I went, not with the heart of a servant, but with the heart of a student.
I went, not to make a difference, but to find common ground.
To face my own poverty. Compassion, after all, means a willingness to suffer with; to find the ways in which we are the same. As one of the organizers pointed out, ‘The only thing that separates them and us, or them and our own child, is one bad decision.”
After setting out trays of squares and cake, I stood alone, feeling unsure of myself.
I observed a man who paced without ceasing. A young woman who talked to herself and made faces. She visited the desert table three times, seemingly delighted with the chocolate cake. I watched her licking her fingers, savouring every crumb.
Presently, a fellow approached and began talking about how best to mingle sweets…to pair contrasting flavours and textures in order to excite the tongue; to enliven sensation and taste. We agreed that peanut butter and chocolate combinations were sublime…particularly when combined with a crunch.
In a corner, another young man quietly drew and re-drew designs on an etch-a-sketch. When I asked if he liked to draw, he smiled shyly and shrugged his shoulders, “I’m not very good at it.”
Some remained alone, while others gravitated to clusters. Was the group with children a family? Or a family created from community? One young couple sat patiently by themselves. Although they hardly touched, their body language echoed love.
From the kitchen, I loaded plates with homemade beans and sausages and warm cornbread. Some accepted second plates, but only when asked if they’d like more.
When the meal was over, most cleaned up their garbage and stopped by the kitchen with smiles and a word of thanks. A few hung around for a bit to chat and in those small pockets of conversation, there was no ‘we’ and ‘they’… it was ‘you’ and ‘me’.
Instead of seeing these men and women in the shadow of their choices, I saw them in the light of their present moment.
And also in this room, I saw snapshots of myself. I remembered my teenager self and her need to be loved. I saw my discomfort in new situations and how a single conversation can bring ease. I saw my inner loneliness and how I gravitate to the familiar for comfort. I saw my own anxiety and how I pace when I am jumpy. I saw how I mutter aloud to encourage myself or to help me remember. How I, too, have been lost in utter delight. I watched myself playing shyly with my own creativity, not realizing its value.
As I was cleaning up, a teenager with tattoos and piercings gathered leftover sweets on a paper plate. “May I take these for my roommate?” she asked. “He’s sick and can’t come. But when I was sick last week, he looked after me.”
“Here,” said the student. “Take more. Isn’t that what this is all about?”
Finally, all of you, be like-minded,
be sympathetic, love one another,
be compassionate and humble.