Friday, August 24, 2018

REAL Reality TV World, Thursday Food Pantry

On Thursdays a group of people gather at the Pantry. They gather there on other days as well but the later pantry time (4-5:30) offers a time for more socializing, I suppose. The traffic at Pantry slows down and they rev up. On that day, everything is much livelier at closing than on others.

Several of the people help with the cleanup. Volunteers begin taking down chairs and tables after C, a tiny woman, maybe 100 lbs, wipes them down. She tells people to finish up with their dishes “so Miss Barbi can close this place up on time.” T, aka Dogg, sits in his place and watches everyone as he sips his coffee. Miss H directs others as to what they should be doing. Pfollows M around as he gathers up all the trash. Reta, the Deaconess Nurse, finishes with her last patient. On the days that he is there, A finishes cleaning up the kitchen. At this point, most of the volunteers have left the building. A couple of volunteers never leave until I give them the go ahead. They are just making sure I am ok. This particular group is always ok.

I wonder if the group of people remaining wait until the other volunteers are gone to be their crazy funny selves. Or maybe it is because I can finally pay attention to them that I actually see how they are. All the drama of the day is over, and the comedy begins.

During the pantry, the drama comes in many forms. From people needing someone to pray for them, right then, right there; to someone bumping into another’s elbow and spilling coffee, threatening the start of World War III; to Mr. W talking non-stop to everyone, to someone, to no one, in his sometimes staccato, sometimes jabberwocky style; to our garden lady (she sleeps there), getting mad and calling everyone the “n” word – most especially black men who happen to get in her way (although I have been called that by her on numerous occasions); to another demanding attention, good or bad; to others wanting me to hurry because they are going to miss their bus. Everyone poking me in the shoulder, calling my name (most calling me “Barb”, some call me Mama), pulling at my elbow, asking for this, asking for that. The need is constant, and one need is always more important than the next.

It is 5:40 p.m. and the doors are locked, the lights are dimmed, the kitchen is closed, the trash is out, the tables are wiped clean and put up. I start singing my closing song that none of them recognize – “Turn out the lights, the party’s over. All good things must come to an end. Turn out the lights, the party’s over and tomorrow starts the same old thing again.” That’s Willie Nelson, y’all. Whatever.

Miss H always says, “The fat lady’s singing.” M says, “Ok, Barb, it’s time for us to go.” P always says, “You’re right, M. It’s time for us to go.”
Then, Miss H says, “Before I go, I need to go to the little girls’ room.” C replies (always), “Miss H can’t ever go before closing time. She has to wait. Now we have to wait on her because she needs help carrying her bags to the car.”

One after another says, well, it’s time to go, but C reminds everyone that they are ‘waiting on Miss H to come out of the bathroom because she can’t ever go before it’s time to leave.’ I remind them that they could just carry the bags outside and wait on her there, to which no one pays me any mind.

P sees a bag sitting on one of the chairs and wonders aloud as to whose it is. One or more of us always tells him that it belongs to M(we know this because it is where he was sitting). P says, “Oh. Oh. This must be M’s.” To which we all agree ...  yep, yep, it must be …

Reta and I look at each other and can’t keep from grinning. No one wants to leave. Reta says that someone ought to film this and put it on TV. We are watching some real reality comedy. It’s called community. And it is beautiful.

Finally, they are all on their way. Reta stays for a minute and we talk about the day. Then she is gone, and I am alone, not only in the South Parish Hall but in the entire building. I soak in the quiet and marvel at what has gone on in that space in the past week. God is present always, even when I get rushed and forget. Moments like these remind me that God is also good, always with me.

Friday, June 15, 2018

On Becoming Beloved Community

One day this week, Wayne clapped me on one shoulder and loudly claimed, “You should have run for mayor!” I laughed, and he then proclaimed, “No one can steal a stove!” To which I replied, “Or a refrigerator!” He clapped me on the shoulder again and said, “Exactly!” Last week, he had told me that he had been accused of stealing the refrigerator where he was staying.

I have known Wayne for most of the almost five years I have been working at Trinity Food Ministry in Saint Louis. Our relationship began as reactionary and tended to escalate quickly. He would come to the Pantry for groceries at least twice a month. The regulation is that a guest may get groceries once per calendar month. To get around that, he would claim that it wasn’t him who came the first time; it was his brother. I was fairly naive so it was allowed for a couple of months.

But then he became more belligerent and irritating, so I shut it down. I told him he had to prove who he was each time he came. I didn’t care who he was, but he had to show me if he wanted groceries.
In that he rarely had his ID, this caused him to be even more aggressive in his attitude. His eyes would narrow, he would “get his face on” and he would ready himself to scare me into backing down. I didn’t.

This went on for at least a couple of years. We had several shouting matches and stare-downs. Then, Wayne didn’t show up for a long while. As is the case on a normal basis, I wondered a few times about him but was too busy to search out an answer. Plus, the Pantry was quieter when he wasn’t there. It was easier.

By the time he returned, I was different. In that period where he was gone, I learned that a big problem with many people is that they do not know they are loved. Or they do not believe themselves lovable. When I saw Wayne return, I greeted him with an exclamation of not only surprise but of joy. I said, “Where have you been? I have missed you! I am glad to see you!”

He looked at me as if I was crazy. Yet his response was a smile. While it took him a few visits to believe me, he came to understand that things were different.

Wayne had not changed much in that time he was away. He still aggravated the bejeesus out of people. He continues to do so. But I have learned that when he narrows his eyes and his face appears to be confrontational, often, he is trying to figure out how to respond to the one causing his confusion. He can be lead away from confrontation by redirecting his attention.

I don’t kid myself. I know that out on the street he has a tough time. He has been put out of more places than I go into. He is classified as a problem and treated as such by most people who do not have the time or the desire to meet him where he is. His life is difficult.

I have watched his mental health decline over this past year. Most conversations are like the one with which I began this. His main themes include his father whom he loved, his high school years, and whether I have Spam or sardines to give him. Interspersed between these themes, a strange statement about refrigerators or stoves or me being mayor will be tossed in. For the most part, he knows he is safe at the Pantry and that I will listen to him for a little while. Somewhere during the conversation, we will laugh.

I would like to say that Wayne is the biggest problem at Pantry but he isn’t even close. But I have found the key to getting along with Wayne. It is to let him know he is loved and that he is worth my time. He knows this because I call him by name and tell him so. He is fed in body and in spirit. For a minute, it is enough.

I try to use that key with others but for some, addiction or mental health problems are just too much of a barrier. These problems filter out love.

Yet life continues.

There are so many things about each of us by which we can be judged daily, moment to moment. Too often, we judge in a flash, mistaking confusion for arrogance, taking one instance and identifying a person by that forever.

We are always beloved, regardless of our knowing this or not. When we get to know one another, when we listen to one another, when we see one another, and, in those actions, we learn that we are loveable and that we are loved. When we set aside our judgmental nature, we enter what Gregory Boyle says is God’s “jurisdiction.”

Within that God-place, we become Beloved Community. This is Jubilee.

Are we there yet? Are we even close? Maybe so, maybe not. For certain, we are closer than we have been.

Friday, March 30, 2018

"Left foot, left foot Right foot, right. Feet in the morning Feet at night." Thank you, Dr. Seuss

I am thinking about feet. My feet often demand that I think of them. Short wide feet with high insteps and high arches, my feet often scream for attention. But it’s not my feet that I am thinking about. I am thinking of the feet I washed last night.

I can’t tell you if the feet were in good condition or if these feet hurt. I can’t even tell you if the nails were painted. I know the feet were soft. I knew that I had to treat those feet as though they were beloved. Because those feet were beloved. Because those feet reminded me of other feet.

Blistered. Callused. Feet used for transporting a body everywhere that body needs to go. Feet that do not have clean socks every day. Feet that are covered in shoes that do not necessarily fit properly. Feet that are wet in rain, cold in winter, sweaty in summer. Imagine.

When I go to Sedona AZ, I walk a great deal. I hike to the vortexes, along the red dusty paths that lead to big red rocks. My black sandals are no longer black; my feet no longer tan. Both are covered in a fine red dust that does not brush away easily. This makes me think of what feet must have looked like in Jesus’ time. Dusty. Dirty. Tired. Responsible for carrying the weight of a person’s life upon them.

Feet are important. Between Tuesday and Thursday of this past week, I walked 25,935 steps, an average of 8,645 steps on each day. That was simply to and fro, back and forth, going nowhere but doing many things. (one of many privileges, my iPhone health app)

How many steps did Jesus walk between the beginning of his ministry in Galilee and that cross at Golgotha? Approximately 106 miles if one walks straight from Capernaum to Jerusalem, but he didn’t. He went into Samaria and crossed over into Judea beyond the Jordan and other points between here and there

Thinking of Jesus walking makes me think of some of the guys from the pantry I know who walk everywhere. Often they are walking to and fro, between one meal and the next, into one area and crossing over into and beyond another. I have seen their feet. I have given out a pair of socks and bandaids in a too meager attempt to ease the burden of those poor, sore feet. Swollen, red, painful.

I wished I had thought of these feet sooner. I wish I had washed these feet on Maundy Thursday. I wish I had warm water and soft towels, clean socks and more bandaids, lotion and soothing balms.

Friday, January 12, 2018

New Eyes

“To begin to see with new eyes, we must observe—and usually be humiliated by—the habitual way we encounter each and every moment. It is humiliating because we will see that we are well-practiced in just a few predictable responses. Not many of our responses are original, fresh, or naturally respectful of what is right in front of us. The most common human responses to a new moment are mistrust, cynicism, fear, defensiveness, dismissal, and judgmentalism. These are the common ways the ego tries to be in control of the data instead of allowing the moment to get some control over us—and teach us something new!

These words of Richard Rohr’s offer me a lesson I have opportunity to learn each day.
Recently, an incident reminded me that regardless of the job that I do, there is always so much more to alter in my own actions.

There is a guy who comes in to the pantry and hot lunch. He has no concern for anyone but himself. He pushes to the front of the line, demands attention regardless of whatever else is going on. He has no idea whatsoever that there are other people in the world with needs. His are his only concern. If I give him one pair of socks, he wants two. He always lifts his pants leg to show me he has no socks on, to prove his need. He doesn’t like the individual size toothpastes or deodorants. Nor the small hotel size soaps. He wants full size. And t-shirts. Always t-shirts. No matter how many belts I have given him over the past year, he always has a request for another. These requests come at least two days per week. He is pushy and demanding, cajoling and pleading, dependent upon how receptive I am to his requests. He tries to be charming by complimenting me in hopes that he can sway me. It is like dealing with a difficult child.

When he comes into the pantry, he leaves behind a mess.... dirty dishes, food crumbs/spills. He is a mess.

One Sunday, he came to the Hot Lunch...35 minutes after the official closing.
If we run out of food prior to that official closing, I open the pantry and retrieve Vienna sausages and any fruit or crackers we might have. It is not a fit meal but it fills the stomach for a while. However, when food is gone after the closing time, it is gone.

It is easy to understand that people who do not have watches or phones do not always know what time it is. It is just as easy to realize that bus schedules do not always fit into our timelines conveniently. I understand that some people are going to be late. It isn’t on purpose or because they are lazy or doing something more interesting. It just happens. Also, from 2 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. is not a very large window of time.

So, when he came in so late this day, he was already irritated. Who knows why he was late. It didn’t matter. There was no prepared food left. As a result, I had to tell him he was too late. He knows that we have a full pantry and there is plenty of food in the building. He wanted me to get something for him. By that time, he was on my last nerve because he was demanding and rude. Actually, there are several people who can get on my last nerve rather quickly.

The thing is, regardless of how much he asks for, I always give him something. I try to err on the side of good. Maybe he sells the stuff; maybe he just likes what he likes. Who knows? I give if I have it to give with only an occasional exception.

However, when he is rude, demanding, and acting like a super spoiled brat, the mom in me comes out and I send him out of the room. So, this day he left angry. As he left, his bag caught on the door handle and that really ticked him off. He turned around and kicked the door. With all his irritation and his blustery bravado, he knew that he was past getting anything. He left, angry, frustrated, cold, and hungry.

It made me feel the same as when a situation sort of spun out of control for my kids or grand kids. I would be irritated and angry as they would escalate but later I would begin to think about how that particular child was feeling or what might have been the source of the outburst. The situation we witness is rarely the cause of the escalation.

I could have made one more exception for him. I could have opened the pantry and given him a couple of cans of ravioli. I could have, but I didn’t. I stood on my principle that he knows the routine, he was late, and I wasn’t budging. I am not looking for kudos for my “tough love.” I am exploring how I might have done this better, how I may have missed an opportunity to seek the divine. Rather, I judged harshly and most likely cast out a hungry person. I feel a bit of humiliation at understanding this.

Rohr finishes his meditation by writing that the “way to any universal idea is to proceed through a concrete encounter.” I am always seeking universal ideas. Rohr continues with “The one is the way to the many; the specific is the way to the spacious; the now is the way to the always, the here is the way to everywhere; the material is the way to the spiritual; the visible is the way to the invisible.”

I appeased my conscious a little bit the next time he came in by simply giving him a little more than he asked. It had been almost a week since he had tossed his tantrum and I pulled the mom card. I had what he requested so I gave. He, in turn, was appreciative.

But here is the rub. Do I, as manager of the Food Ministry, have a right to let my “mom” come out in me? How does that offer respect or dignity to an adult (or child, for that matter) if I pull a superior tone and/or condescending or give and take action?

I would rather be judged for giving too much than too little. What is given to the ministry is given with the idea that it will be available to those who need it. Is it mine to determine need? I know the answer to that is basically that all who come in are in need. So, yes, I do determine that there is need.

However, should the concern of having someone taking advantage of me weigh into the equation when a person is obviously in need. ‘In need of what’ is a question that I am not sure I have a right to ask. I cannot spend my time wondering if someone is trying to rip off the pantry. If someone does choose to sell the food they get, then perhaps that little bit of money was what he needed. It is not mine to determine what a person needs most.

What I seek is to make certain that my ego does not get in the way or try to be in control, mainly, that the moment does not control me. None of this is about me, should not be about me. It is about offering sustenance to those who come seeking nourishment. While limits must always be in place to ensure that there is enough for others also, when there is abundance, a portion of that abundance should be share.

Life is too short and hard to live out of our fears of scarcity.

It is important to see our habits and how these cause us to act in each moment. These concrete moments, the one, the specific, the now, the here, the material, the visible, offer insight into something so much larger than the me, the ego, the knee-jerk reaction. It offers an opportunity to open ourselves up to what Rohr calls “a fully sacramental universe where everything is an epiphany.”

I cannot live with the idea of being dismissive, judgmental, cynical, defensive, or fearful. These things make us mistrust the idea that Love is supreme and the only way to respond. These actions give us cause to justify our own reactions.

I want love to be my first response, and then every response following that. If someone takes advantage of my love, well, then, so be it. Love has the power to win over all else.

Quotes from “Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation” Contemplative Consciousness, Awe and Surrender, January 12, 2018.

Normal does not mean OK

  I often wonder how I live such a normal life. I know they say that “normal” is only a setting on the dryer, but you know what I mean. I ha...