Tonight was one of the first exceptionally cold nights of the season. As I parked my car and walked into The Banquet, the wind picked up and took my breath away. The chilled air pierced my skin like the sting of ice (I am unusually cold, ALL THE TIME, so yes, there is a bit of personal overreaction here)… and it isn’t even comparable to the bitter weather that is coming. My only thought was, “Where the hell are these people going to go tonight”? Thus begins the journey…
I woke up this morning with anger and fear racing through my heart. Frustrated at details of days past, the only thing I knew to do was pray, asking God to bless others and change me. I also wrote. I allowed my heart to guide my intellect, revealing the emotions I most often try to bury. A reaction to previous situations was not going to benefit myself or anyone else, so I started with a couple simple actions that would change the course of my day.
The fear revealed itself on occasion throughout the day, but most often it was concealed with faith averting the anxiety. Once I was able to verbalize the anger with a trusted friend, it left. There was no more concern for the events of days past, only excitement for the experience of tonight. The service work we’ve been waiting weeks for!
Walking in the door to The Banquet, I was astounded by the size of the building. It didn’t seem that big before. Tables were assembled, festive centerpieces holding down decorative table clothes. Four chairs lined each side of every table. “This took time”, I thought. As we gathered for the “instructions”, I was in awe of all of the work, preparation and dedication it took to share a meal with those in need. It was simple for me to take for granted that “someone”, somewhere does this stuff. Here is love… here is the love that we have seen gradually disappear from humanity.
Guests began to line up, resting in folding chairs placed for them to wait. I wasn’t assigned a job right away, so I was directed to eat. As I waited, toward the back of the line, a woman walked up and said, “What’s this Tallgrass Recovery”? As we talked, she told me a bit about her journey and asked questions about mine. We talked as we went through the line, holding our trays out for the volunteers to graciously serve us our meal. “Last night was lasagna and bread sticks, and of course salad”, she said, “I’m so glad it’s something warm again tonight. And good too”!
It took me a minute to understand the realization that while I have cupboards full of food, I am often too busy to cook and just grab toast or cereal between plans. I cook, or don’t cook, without a second thought. It doesn’t cross my mind that I may not have another warm meal for five days. I don’t worry about not having enough. Even if I am short on groceries, there are friends and family that will gladly provide for me. Where do the guests here go, if they don’t have groceries between nights that this is open? Does this woman go days without eating? My heart was rattled, but we kept talking.
After going through the line, I chose a table with all guests, no other volunteers. It’s easy for me to sit with the volunteers, my friends or acquaintances, to avoid awkward small talk. But, I was taught to do the uncomfortable. So, I did. And it wasn’t uncomfortable at all. Asking if I could join their table, a man read my name badge and said, “Sure. Sit down”. We talked throughout the course of our meals, learning a bit about each other. Learning that I was sitting with a veteran, I thanked him for his service and he told me about his journey.
As I finished my meal, I cleaned my place at the table and thanked them for allowing me to visit with them. I replaced a volunteer at the drink table and looked around. Filling water glasses, serving coffee and running milk to guests, I couldn’t help but smile. For the first time, in a long time, it felt incredible to give back in this way. There was a time, not so long ago, when I sat on the other side of that table. Not here, but when I was in active addiction living in Kansas. I’m pretty sure we only ate there once, but I was grateful for it. And I was grateful for tonight as well.
As I walked from table to table, checking on the guests to see if they needed anything else, I caught the eye of a woman waving for me to come over. I filled her glass with water, went back to grab another milk, and offered the table coffee. I was doing what we were all there to do. In return, the man sitting across from her handed me a butterfly. This is the beauty we often miss… when it seems like we may have nothing to give, the best gifts come anyway. The man is hearing impaired, so the woman explained that he takes the wrapper from the butter packets and folds them up, neatly making a butterfly (Get it? BUTTERfly. Very clever!). I thanked him, and her, and when I returned home, I put that butterfly on my memory board.
Throughout the course of the evening, we asked the veterans to stand. Being Veteran’s Day, it was another opportunity to honor them. Tears fell as the veteran guests stood. A roar filled the banquet hall as we clapped and honored these soldiers. I have goosebumps again now, just writing it. The service to protect our freedom, our country, is something most of us could not do, but we can thank them.
After cleaning up and tearing down the tables, food stands and other parts of the hall, I headed to my weekly meeting with my sponsor. We talked about recovery, service, love and tolerance, but I couldn’t get these guests out of my head, or heart… Heading home, the wind had picked up even more and I thought again of the guests. Some have homes, but do all? Where will anyone without a home sleep tonight? What can I do to fulfill my purpose of being of maximum service to God and my fellows?
I signed up to volunteer again, and I registered to volunteer at another shelter. Those are things that I can do to give back. I climbed in bed last night, tired and with a full tummy. But more importantly, my heart is full. I was given the best gift, the gift of service. It really is true that by helping others, we help ourselves… and more often than not, they (in any situation) help me, more than I can ever help them.