Shannon knows the importance of giving back — helping people who are hungry or poor has always been an important value for her. But one meal she shared at a Catholic Worker house left her wondering about who was helping whom. The answer she found opened wide her experience of community.
There must be some mistake, I reasoned as they handed me a plate. After all, I was here at the meal as a volunteer. I should be the one handing out plates of food.
I scanned the room for my husband, Eric, while shushing the baby on my hip. When I finally located him wrangling our preschooler, he grinned widely and nodded affirmation that I was indeed supposed to be eating with everyone else at the table. Not later, when the hungry had been served. Not later, in the comfort of my own ample home. Simply, now.
As I wiggled into my place at the crowded picnic table, wedged between an elderly alcoholic man and a young woman whose face betrayed a tragic life story, I felt self-consciousness rise up inside me. Was I dressed too nicely, looking like a rich snob? Did I put too much food on my plate and appear greedy or inconsiderate?
As the minutes of the meal ticked by I was thankful to be holding a baby — if there is one thing that makes conversation easy to find between people in awkward settings, it’s a baby.
It’s not that I lacked prior experience in volunteer service to draw from. Growing up, my parents were very intentional about exposing my siblings and me to the world outside our middle-class bubble. We engaged in occasional service projects as a family, attended a church positioned in a low-income part of town, and spent one memorable Thanksgiving Day helping out with a meal at the Salvation Army. I’ve long been grateful for these experiences because they have formed the person I came to be in adulthood.
All of my experiences of volunteer work always featured clear and delineated roles — and I had never realized until that moment how much I liked that delineation. You’re the one in need, and I am not. You are the hungry one, and I’m well-fed. You are poor and I am rich. You are here because of my generosity, and I am here to feel good about myself.
But this meal was different. Here, everyone worked together to cook the food, set the table, wash the dishes, and sweep the floors. And yes, everyone sat down at the same table and ate together. In fact, it wasn’t always possible to tell who was homeless and who was not, who was there because they were truly hungry and who was there simply for community. It didn’t matter.
In one simple meal, I was forced to acknowledge how comfortable I’d been within the “us and them” framework. I liked the feeling of doing something good in the world, but I didn’t actually want to have real relationships with the people I was claiming to help. I liked the feeling of being needed but had no interest in questioning whether I had need of others, too.
As I sat, ate, and chatted through that dinner, I felt my heart and mind begin to change. Old assumptions were cracking and falling away, and I liked the things that were growing in their place. When the woman beside me offered to hold my baby, I felt the physical and mental relief of a break from responsibility. When I overheard a man giving Eric advice on starting a garden, I understood that his current state of homelessness didn’t make obsolete the skills he’d accrued over a whole lifetime.
The very people we thought we had come to serve were helping us. And I shamefully realized that I had assumed they couldn’t.
We went back to that community meal the next week, and the next, and the next. Nearly every Friday night for a year and a half (until we moved states), we shared life over whatever food we each had to offer, and before long that ragtag community became our family.
Time and distance now separate us from sharing that particular meal with that particular group of folks, but the change that took place within me there is still a strong force in my life. I’ve relaxed a bit on the whole “saving the world” thing, and have come to see that maybe simply befriending the world is a more important starting point.
Because as long as my pride separates me from another, I will never allow God to change me through them. But when we re-train our brains to see less difference and more dignity, we begin to discover that we will all be transformed by mutually giving to — and receiving from — one another.
In a world like that, everyone could have a seat at the table.