Silvia volunteers on Wednesdays and Sundays at the church on the corner. She isn’t always on time for set-up but they hold a place for her in the serving line—she likes to help with the salad. Impeccably dressed, her long curls are pulled into a loose bun, her bright red nails skillfully break the seal on a new bottle of salad dressing.
“Here hon,” she says, “let me hold your plate and you can put on as much dressing as you want.” Some of the eaters ask about her kids, others just grunt and move on to the drink table to choose lemonade or coffee.
They are all from nearby—the shelter up the street, or from one of the rooming houses, or a tent over by the railroad tracks. A few are from the senior housing around the corner. Silvia lives in the garage behind one of the walk-ups on Oak Street.
“No tomatoes, right?” to one person, and “Oh, you’ve got to have salad, sweet heart. Mama always said to eat your vegetables.” Staff has warned her that she can’t make people take salad, but nothing stops her from trying. “Just take a little” or “come on, it’s lettuce, it doesn’t even taste like anything.” Salad is nearly impossible to chew if you don’t have teeth, but Silvia persists.
When I ask for volunteers to be interviewed Silvia is eager to take part, but does not show up for her scheduled Thursday appointment. I see her again on Sunday and try again. “Can you spend a few minutes before we start serving?”
She can, and she shares freely about how the meal program works—she was there at the start, when the pastor and a few others were brainstorming on the front steps of the church. She effuses about the pastor, and about Marina, the cook. “They really listen to you. Like they know when you need to talk and then they don’t judge you.”
“What kinds of things do you share?” I ask cautiously.
“Oh, you know, when things are hard,” Silvia’s eyes avoid mine, darting around the room. “I think its time to start serving.” She hurries away as I call “thank you” to her back.
I approach the serving table and Camilla places me behind the green beans, next to Silvia, and hands me a one-cup measure as a serving spoon. Right away I run into trouble—the scoop holds water with the beans which I pour onto someone’s plate. The water pours off onto the table. Silvia pops up to grab paper towels and cleans up the water, and then calms the man whose meal I’d messed up. Once he was settled she showed me how to hold the cup against the side of the serving bowl and drain off the water.
“I thought you were an expert in meals?” she said accusingly. The pastor had in fact introduced me that way.
I shrug with an embarrassed smile. “I don’t know much about the food part. I know about volunteers and churches.”
“What good is that?”
I am training for the Disney Half Marathon. Not the princess marathon, or the star wars marathon, I am training for the Wine and Dine Marathon. If I’m going to work that hard I want to eat well afterward. And enjoy a nice glass of wine.
People presume all sorts of good reasons for setting such a goal—to lose weight, to treat depression, to see Mickey Mouse—but I have exactly one reason. I want my body to work better. There are people who believe that food is medicine; I don’t believe that. There are people who believe that exercise helps you lose weight; that is not true. There are people who believe that walking long distances is fun; that has not been my experience. But I am confident that more exercise will make my body work better.
I am my body.
I hang out with many spiritual people. Church folk, of course, and pastors, and also people who see the spirit in magic and in the trees and in the wind. I connect with people who are looking for that indescribable part of life, the piece of us that can’t be explained. We call that spirit, or soul, or god, or God. Spiritual people work on their connections to spirit. I have a prayer routine and a meditation practice, I gather with others for worship, for good works, for community. Wherever two or three are gathered, there we feel the spirit’s presence.
And when I’m with people who feel that sense of the spirit someone invariably says “this is what’s real” or “this gets at who I really am.” When I work with people who have homes there is a desire to know “what’s really there” in people who don’t have homes or who are food insecure. When we practice how to be spiritual companions for people someone often says “we have to find the real spirit in the person.” Good, compassionate goals.
But I don’t think that who we are is only the spiritual part of us. I don’t think that all of who we are is hidden by our physical selves. We are not spiritual beings trapped in bodies. We are not only a spirit. The body is not only a costume, it is not only something that hides who we really are.
I am my body. You are your body. Those we meet have bodies that are a part of who they are.
Unfortunately, bodies give us trouble. In the search for the fast-enough Half Marathon I have had to have my heart checked, my knees poked, and I am now sitting with leg up to reduce swelling in my ankle. I take medicines that keep my lungs accepting air, and my stomach digesting food. As I struggle to make my body better, my body responds with listing the parts that need more work.
This is true for every person we meet. Some people’s bodies struggle with addictions, others with brain disease the cause mental health challenges. Some bodies have hands or fingers or lips that are less nimble, or legs or ankles or feet that are less able to carry them forward. All of this bodied-ness interferes with living our lives to the fullest. And all of this bodied-ness is part of who we are.
We cannot help people by focusing only on what is happening with their spiritual lives. It is not enough to assist only with bodily needs. To see people as they are we are called to see people’s spirits and their bodies. Ask me about my prayer life, but ask me also about my upcoming race.
How close are you to life without a home?
A friend of mine is running a go-fund-me to pay for medical expenses related to cancer. He has health insurance. He as the same health insurance I have. We have great health insurance. He needs about $1000 per month—probably for a year—to pay for expenses that aren’t covered. What would you do if you had to make an emergency payment?
Neal Gabler writes in The Atlantic about the inability of middle-class people in the United States to handle an emergency. The latest Federal Reserve survey monitoring our economic status found that 47% of us do not have enough cash to cover a $400 emergency. $400.
Further, a study by Jacob Hacker at Yale shows that each year 20% of us have an unexpected event that costs more than our savings. Edward Wolff, an economist at New York University has found that working families making $50,000 a year have enough cash to carry on for six days if they lost their jobs.
Credit card debt, financial illiteracy, and bad choices certainly contribute to this problem. So does what the market looks like when you need to sell property, whether you lose a job (or as Gabler notes, take too long to write a book), whether you can find a new job when you are ready to do so. For lots of people, the problem is simply that income doesn’t grow at the same rate as expenses.
Where ever the fault lies, someone who can’t pay for $400 emergency will be in trouble once an emergency happens. Check out Neal Gabler’s article and see what you think. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/05/my-secret-shame/476415/
For my organized thoughts, see my book Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers: Developing Relational Food Ministries. In this spot are thoughts that appear for a moment--about food programs, mission, church, building community, writing, and whatever else pops into my head.