“Hey, you should come see what it’s all about,” my contact said. I agreed.
The venue was teaming with people; a lot of white folks, a lot of black folks. Some lived on the streets, some lived in houses. Others didn’t make it to high school. Some had post graduate degrees. Most were like me, somewhere in between, but none of that mattered here. We were all here to be fed.
I darted to the back of the room, as I do. My contact greeted me, while I was waiting for the line of food to go down. I saw a hand wave at me in the crowd of tables. Joe. His wife Marianne was next to him. I wandered over to their table, I hadn’t heard from them in months, despite texting them. Marianne and I hugged. “Phone got stolen,” Marianne said sadly. She gave me her new number, a 302 area code: Delaware. “I don’t know how I got that,” she says. “It’s just what they gave me.” Joe told me he’s still learning German with Duolingo. They’re getting housing soon, by month’s end. I tell them if they need help moving and cleaning to call me, I’ll help. I hope the housing isn’t a mirage this time.
I make my way to the food. It’s all the good southern cooking: chicken, bbq pork, mac ‘n cheese, baked beans, green beans, potato salad, coleslaw, the good rolls, and enough cookies to give the room diabetes. The seats at Joe and Marianne’s table filled up, so I was left to find my own table. It felt like the lunch room on the first day at a new school.
I saw an open seat at a table with strangers. “May I sit here?” I asked an old man. “Go right ahead young lady,” he said. The man was obviously on the streets, unwashed, and looked generally unhealthy. “I ain’t never seen you around here before,” he drawled in a smooth southern accent. “I’m usually behind the scenes,” I replied. He’s from here, as was the lady across the table, who was in much the same state as the old man. The lady – who must have been in her late 40’s – spoke about losing her parents two years apart. She talked about it as if it just happened – it was 25 years ago – but that pain was very recent to her. I’ve noticed that a lot among the extreme poverty stricken: there’s always unhealed trauma poking its head through the surface, like a noxious weed.
As the dinner line wound down, the service started. The Master of Ceremonies began with deep breathing exercises and a centering bell, straight out of a contemplative handbook. A woman with a guitar started playing and everyone sang Happy Birthday to someone at a near by table. He was tickled pink at the acknowledgment. The woman sang the old hymns like a soul who knew pain, which resonated with the room. And then she broke into “Hallelujah.” This group sang it like a worship song, its aching lyrics reaching out to the shattered hearts. The song is really about the ending of a sexual relationship, but its roots are in agony. They ended with “Amazing Grace,” and the singer didn’t know all the lyrics, so the crowd filled in the blanks.
All the while, people were milling about the room: using bathrooms, grabbing a last morsel of food, heading outside for a smoke break – some people got up and switched tables for seemingly no reason. The room, like much of these people’s lives, was in a constant state fluid motion.
A short sermon was preached by a woman pastor. Her thesis statement was spot on: The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood. Indeed it did.
There was a time for prayer which included soothing piano music and lighting a candle by the altar to honor that prayer. I nearly went up to light one for my struggling loved one, but I didn’t. The room had largely cleared out. Many had left after the meal, which is fine by this group. “Eating together is part of the worship service, it’s their decision to stay for more.”
The pastor celebrated communion. As I went up, I saw a familiar face from church. “I’m glad you’re here,” he said, patting my shoulder as he walked past.
At the end of the service, the room was nearly vacant. Even Joe and Marianne had vanished into thin air. One by one everyone had slowly melted into the night, scattering like dandelion seeds in the wind.
Just like everyone else, I left that night with a full stomach and a full soul.