Stand Up

January 11, 2010

Sometime in your life, hope that you might see one starved man, the look on his face when the bread finally arrives. Hope that you might have baked it or bought or even kneaded it yourself. For that look on his face, for your meeting his eyes across a piece of bread, you might be willing to lose a lot, or suffer a lot, or die a little, even.
                — Daniel Berrigan, S.J., b. 1921
                     American Jesuit priest and peace activist

helphandsI’d forgotten it until I turned my planner to January and saw “serve @ St. Stephen’s 4-6 pm” scrawled at the bottom of the space for January 10. I had a vague memory of signing a sheet on the narthex table after church one Sunday, probably in November. The sheet was gone when I went to church on Epiphany Sunday. “What did I agree to do?” I asked my friends when we convened for our first Thursday morning study group session of the new year.

“That’s the Helping Hands thing,” Georgie said. “Just go down there at 4:00. Kathleen will put you to work.”

Kathleen Schulkins started Helping Hands Ministries in 1993. Once close to homelessness herself, with two small children to care for, she knew the need not just for food and clothing, but for emotional comfort as well. As she describes her work now, “We are an outreach ministry in the city of Harrisburg for the homeless, the downtrodden, and other needy people. Through hot meals, we reach out to the poor with a love and care that is so often missing yet desperately wanting in their lives. No one is turned away. Anyone in need of a hot meal or encouragement is welcomed.”

I’d put my name on that sheet weeks before I became outraged by a viral e-mail “joke” that made guests at a Washington, D.C. feeding ministry the target of ridicule. Something was moving in me, again, and I became more aware than ever that I talk about hunger more than I do anything about it. It was certainly time I took some action on the good intentions I’d expressed in 2004, when I served one night as a volunteer in an emergency cold weather shelter. I reposted the piece I wrote then, and acknowledged that thinking about the hungry and the homeless was about all I really did.

“The hungry and the homeless have a special place in my heart, for reasons I do not fully understand.” I wrote on December 23. “But then, the way the Prince of Peace calls us to serve is often a mystery. I pray daily for people who suffer this way. I also contribute regularly, if modestly, to my congregation’s ministry to feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. If nothing else, perhaps my anger over . . .  this stupid joke will lead me to get more involved. If Mrs. Obama can dish out mushroom risotto, so can I.” A forgotten sign-up on our opportunities table had saved that paragraph from being just more empty words.

Kathleen serves meals five nights a week, year-round, on Sundays at St. Stephen’s, on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays at the First Church of God a few blocks away, and on Wednesdays outside behind the courthouse. She provides all the food. Some of it is donated by supermarkets and bakeries. Some of it she buys with donated funds from agencies that collect and distribute perishable items for feeding ministries. She depends on volunteers for the labor needed to get the food onto the tables. My church, Tree of Life, usually provides these helping hands on the second Sunday of the odd-numbered months.

It was 20 degrees but not windy when I arrived at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Cathedral on Front Street in Harrisburg at about ten of four. Like many old spots downtown, St. Stephen’s, built originally in 1826, occupies a fairly narrow space along the street but stretches back half a block with structures that have been added on and shoe-horned in to provide fellowship space, a school, offices, and other areas that an active congregation needs. I stood in the canyon formed by the school building and the parking garage next door and heard my name called by someone from my own church.

“Kathleen sometimes doesn’t get here till 4:15,” said my friend. She had her 12-year-old son with her. Amy, who coordinates our contingent, arrived then, along with her husband and her 10-year-old and 7-year-old. Delicate flowers of suburbia that we are, we waited in our cars for someone to come and unlock the doors. I did not, however, turn the engine on so I could have the heater going.

Eventually, Kathleen did arrive, along with a member of the Cathedral congregation, some people I didn’t know, and another friend from my church. In all, there were about fifteen pairs of helping hands.

Kathleen cooks the food in her own home. Yesterday there was beef barbecue and turkey barbecue, mushroom risotto, and a kettle of boiled Swiss chard with bacon. She had bags of produce as well — oranges and clementines, cucumbers, green peppers. She put the produce out on a table in the dining room along with dozens of desserts and trays of cookies donated by bakeries, and coffee and juice and water. We served the hot foods from the counter between the kitchen and the dining room. I truly did dish out mushroom risotto, just like Mrs. Obama.

We served about a hundred people, most of them men. They were all ages — tall twenty-somethings who looked as robust as any football player, a very old man with misshapen legs who walked with a cane, women in their forties who, with a little makeup and hairstyling, could look just like any audience member waiting to see Oprah or Jay Leno. There was one group that appeared to be a family — a man, a woman, and two small children. Many were clearly regulars. Kathleen knew them, talked to some of them personally. She settled one argument about cutting in line. Most folks came to the window more than once. Some asked for small containers of the risotto and the barbecue to take with them.

Every morsel of the hot food was distributed, and all of the produce. A lot of the baked goods remained. We packed that back up. We washed down the tables and swept the floor as our guests took what they needed from big tubs of clothes that appeared in the hallway sometime during the serving and the eating. No one was asked by what right he or she had come, no one was questioned about their motives or their need, no one was judged. There was laughter, there was joy.

Not one person who held out a plate to me failed to say thank you. I should have thanked them, every single one as he or she passed in front of me. As I met their eyes across a lump of mushroom risotto, I lost nothing, I suffered nothing. All of the gifts yesterday were to me. “Give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others,” Walt Whitman wrote in 1855, “and your very flesh shall be a great poem, and have the richest fluency, not only in its words, but in the silent lines of its lips and face, and between the lashes of your eyes, and in every motion and joint of your body.”

I haven’t fully recovered from my ankle injury a month ago. I haven’t been to the gym in ages, preferring instead to read another chapter or write in my journal or doodle in my sketchbook rather than pack up my workout clothes and head out into the cold. Under the best of circumstances I have creaky hips and arthritic knees. By the time I climbed the stairs up from St. Stephen’s basement to the street, I’d been on my feet for more than two hours, at least an hour of it standing in one place dishing out mushroom risotto. I was stiff and sore in places that I didn’t even know I had.

And yet I felt something of the reward Whitman promised. But my flesh will not be a great poem until I have been back in that place every second Sunday of every odd month this year, at least. Today I stood up. Today I began.

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