Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Place at the Table

       Saturday is usually the night our family goes out to eat. Five o’clock Mass followed by dinner out at a restaurant, or picking up take out so we can head out to whatever activities we have on the calendar. Last Saturday, my son Andrew and I had supper with a wonderful group of people. New friends, who live in a part of town we never venture out in. Actually, we didn’t eat, we served dinner. For a change, we chose, in the words of Jesus, “the lowest seat at the table” (Luke 14). In the humid, late August heat, we joined the team of volunteers at the Uplift Organization,, and helped serve dinner to the homeless. More than memorable, the experience was life changing. 

Uplift is a local organization committed to reaching out to the homeless population of Kansas City. Locally founded and operated, Uplift serves an average of 450 meals per week and provides basic supplies to people living on the streets. Uplift serves dinners three nights a week, on three different routes. The East Route is blest to have Jim and his wife as the primary volunteers. Most drivers volunteer once a month. Jim and his wife volunteer every Saturday. Jim knows everyone on the route. He knows where to look if they aren’t there, and he knows who is shut-in and in need of a special stop. It is a huge undertaking that wouldn’t be possible without committed volunteers like Jim and his wife. I feel honored to have spent an evening in his company.

       Long before the trucks hit the road, the work at the Uplift warehouse begins. Each truck has to be loaded with supplies. Teams of volunteers coordinate food for 150 people each night. The food is prepared by volunteers off site and delivered. The trucks can accommodate three or four volunteers and the driver. Tubs of socks, t-shirts, personal hygiene items, over the counter meds, books, candles, dog and cat food and canned goods are filled and loaded. Gallons of lemonade are mixed and recycled 2 liter bottles are filled with clean water. Requests for clothing, shoes and other items from the previous nights run, which have been filled and tagged in recycled plastic grocery bags, are gathered and put on the top shelf with anything else Jim can remember someone requested. Everything is donated and all the labor is volunteer.

      “Throw in two or three light jackets. Someone usually asks for one.” Jim mentions in passing as he loads pasta with beef into insulated tubs to keep it warm on the truck. Tonight someone brought in a box of homegrown tomatoes. We cut those up to serve with the meal. Jim also sneaks in some treats, Ding Dongs and chocolate covered peppermint sticks. We have to keep those iced down. It is so hot in the warehouse that we are sweat soaked long before we get into the delivery truck – a few large fans are no replacement for air-conditioning.  Many of the candles have become so soft they’ve formed a huge blob of wax in the candle tub. There will be no reprieve from the August heat in the truck, so we keep the side van door open while we drive for ventilation. I feel like a kid, sitting in the back next to the open van door as we drive to each stop.

      After sorting donations for so many years, it is gratifying to see who the recipients will be. The instructions to new volunteers are simple:

1. Listen to your driver, they know what they’re doing.
2. If you feel at all uncomfortable, get back in the truck immediately.
3. Be kind. The outreach of friendship is just as important as the food they receive.
4. Have fun.

      Our first stop is just down the street from the warehouse and several people are waiting for us. This isn’t our stop, it’s on the West Route, but we are the last truck out and Jim can see they forgot to stop, so we pull in. It’s a new stop on the route, called in by a young girl named Loni. Loni and her boyfriend Billy are white, young and seem very energetic. Loni is listening to contemporary Christian music on an old walkman C.D. player tucked in the waist of her jeans. She has a beautiful voice, but more remarkable than that, she sings with joy and enthusiasm. For a minute, I sing with her under my breath; I’m too self conscious - too aware that I’m covered in perspiration in a parking lot downtown, introducing myself to strangers. I don’t have her spirit.

       Loni is barefoot on the hot pavement and pops back and forth into the shade, but she keeps singing. I put in a request for a pair of tennis shoes for her, which I’m fairly sure won’t be in the warehouse when I get back. They don’t have room to keep women’s clothing, so those donations are all passed on to another charity. That order probably won't get filled until the next donation load gets sorted on the second Saturday in September. It is August 21st – that’s a long time to go barefoot.

 A man named Jason asks if we were able to fill his order for some 34 waist pants. I can’t find it. I’m guessing we don’t have any to fill the order with; donations are really low right now. We didn’t have any large or extra large t-shirts, which amazed me. It seems as though I’ve sorted and folded thousands of them over the years – boxes line the warehouse wall on shelves which tower over my head. But my son doubled checked before we left, all the boxes were empty.

A few truths begin to brew as we move from stop to stop and I visit with more people. The people come from diverse backgrounds. They are young and old, black, white, Hispanic – there are no racial quotas on the street. Just a handful of them are socially awkward and feel uncomfortable communicating. The majority of these people are friendly and extremely polite. Like me, they hope to be treated with dignity when interacting with the world. I’m humbled by the way they introduce themselves and help me get everyone’s name on the list. They know my son and I are new to the job and go out of their way not only to be helpful, but to explain to us the many ways Uplift has been a support system for them. The table is turned from the get go: these kind people are encouraging and supporting us.

There aren’t any washing machines under bridges or in abandoned houses. When the weather is unbearably hot, as it has been this summer, clothing is disposable for the homeless. One man confessed his t-shirt was beginning to mold. A woman named Flo was disappointed the only t-shirts left were two all white medium size – white shows everything when you are soaked to the bone with sweat or caught in a summer rain storm. Tight is a problem too.“I have to have at least some writing on the front to feel covered.” Flo says as she passes on the white t-shirt. She is really fun to talk with, and as we wave good-bye I feel like I’ve made a friend.

Waving good-bye to a friend - just like Loni at the previous stop, and Whiskey, a veteran train hopper, who is riding with us on the truck working off his community service commitment.  His stories, which are filled with years of adventures hopping trains and getting to know every state in the continental U.S., entertained us during the drive. We drop Whiskey off later at his home, under a bridge. In the winter he sleeps in a tent, but its so hot now he sleeps up under the girders. He walks with a cane and its painful to think of him trying to scale the cement embankment to reach the top. I look away as we drive off. The reality of his existence is jarring in comparison to the romantic adventures I imagined as he told tales of his life on the trains. 

           As I visit with more people and jot down requests for items that to me represent the bare minimum of existence; t-shirts, shoes, a duffel bag - the stark reality of the homeless rests uneasily on my conscience. Flo used to live in a house not far from my neighborhood. I wondered what circumstances directed the course of her life from there to here. Humbled by the gratitude and joyful spirits of this community within a community, I couldn’t help but feel guilty for all my material blessings. We that “have” live in blissful ignorance, while a few minutes away an entire network of homeless wait in hope for meals and basic supplies to arrive three nights a week. How petty and small some of the trials that cloud my prayer requests must sound to God, when at the same time He is standing with Loni and Flo in the depths of their great need. There is such an inequity of material blessings among God’s children. I struggle with that, how He can let that happen. Maybe God is wondering the same thing about me.

         There are more stories to tell; we met so many people in one night. It was a gift - the opportunity to know them. I’m excited to go back out on the East Route – I have my supply list ready. These are my neighbors now. On Monday, Wednesday and Saturday nights, a group of volunteers at Uplift makes room at the head of the table for them and the message of the Luke’s gospel comes to life. When the door of the Uplift van opens, for a few minutes, "the last are served first". Its an experience worth seeking out.

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