A few months back, I joined a church group that goes to a homeless shelter once a month to prepare breakfast for about 200 street people. This group has been doing this for several years. The work is hard: We get up early and shop for all the food, haul it to the shelter kitchen, and prepare the meal, serve it and clean up afterward. We spend a good four hours from start to finish. We make cauldrons of coffee and juice, large casseroles of scrambled eggs, sausage, and cheese, plus toast, pancakes and fruit. The food isn't fancy, but the people we serve seem to like it and appreciate our efforts.
The 10 of us in the breakfast group are good friends, and we are the typical white upper-middle-class liberal do-gooders. My problem is that after we finish serving and cleaning up, no one eats at the shelter or even really associates with the clientele. It apparently is a tradition that once the kitchen is cleaned up, the whole crew walks several blocks from the downtown shelter to a very nice hotel, where we pay $30 a person for a fancy brunch buffet. The price goes up if one orders mimosas and Bloody Marys, and most people do.
I suggested that after we have served the last person in line, we should prepare a plate for ourselves of the food we cooked and join our clients out in the dining room. The response I got from my fellow crew members caused me some dismay. Nearly everyone curled their lips and acted as though I had suggested that we lick the floor. "Eeeyew, I don't like the cheap cheese in the casserole." "I only eat low carb (low fat, low calorie, low whatever)." "After four hours, I just want to relax and let someone clean up after me." "I figure that after a morning doing this, I deserve a reward." Frankly, I think that most of the group is scared of street people and only want to hide in the kitchen or behind the service counter ... God forbid they sit elbow to elbow with someone who hasn't bathed in a week.
This seems horribly patronizing or condescending or "Lady Bountiful" to me. We are good enough to buy, prepare and serve you food but we are too good to eat it with you. The irony of us making cheap food for 200 (and yes, we buy discount ingredients ... generic brands, not brand names) and then dropping the same amount of money or more for a white-linen brunch for 10 seems to be lost on my co-workers. I have begun boycotting the brunches and joining the shelter folks for breakfast, but no one from the crew has joined me.
Am I being a pill? Is it any of my business where my do-gooder friends want to eat, or how much they spend on themselves? I don't want to stop working at the shelter; these people need to get fed, but I hate the feeling of us-and-them. I wonder if I am being hypocritical, thinking that it is noble of me to spend an hour chatting and eating with homeless people instead of eating off china plates and sipping really good coffee, and then getting into my hybrid and driving across town to my house.
Bleeding Heart Liberal
Dear Bleeding Heart,
I'm not a religious person but I've heard a few things about Jesus.
Jesus stood alone, and that is part of his allure. He stood alone against the crowd and he stood with the poor. There was a higher principle at work than the principle that governed the flow of money and goods in society. It was something about how every person no matter how low has a chance for transformation and miraculous salvation. About the eternal life bit, you believe what you like. To me it sounds as if he was offering a second chance, how everybody no matter how fucked up has a tiny speck of divinity that you can see if you look for it and hear if you listen.
So about the whole going for mimosas after feeding the poor: It isn't about whether it's noble of you. This is not salvation on the points system. There is something more profound at work here, and I admire you for being open to it.
A good and just society would feed and house all its people. A society that is rich and powerful and has not found a way to use its great wealth and power to feed and house all its people fails this fundamental test in a spectacular and historic way. I fear that such a civilization will be mocked and scorned by future generations.
Since our government is the principal organ by which we exercise our vision of a good and just society, this failure is primarily a failure of our government. So any institution outside our government that steps in to help is to be commended. What that institution's members do after providing this service to the country is no concern of those of us who are not dishing out the food. They can go bowling or go fishing or get drunk and pick up hookers. They've done important service and we owe them gratitude.
That is the big picture. You are doing a good thing and where you eat afterward is up to you. But what is important is that you yourself are feeling a pang of moral conscience. It isn't so much about these other church folks. What they want to do is their business. What's significant is that you feel the tug of conscience and you have a spiritual thirst.
So the question is, what good will it do to sit down and eat a meal with some people who don't have enough money to keep a roof over their heads? Why would you do that? Would it be an act of charity or an act of ego? Is that even a meaningful distinction? Would you be appreciated or would you make everyone uncomfortable? Would you be eating with the poor just to show up your church buddies? Would you be doing it to achieve some kind of moral street cred? Are those meaningful distinctions? And would you be able to restrain yourself from picking food off other people's plates? And is that a meaningful distinction or just some nonsense thrown in so this doesn't sound hopelessly grave and pompous?
Well, bottom line, I think that when such moments arise we trust our instincts. Because as humans we seek integration of the vast, many-faceted pattern that is our being. And the parts of us that we don't fully understand, or that are buried or undeveloped, signal us in primitive ways, through signs and encounters, through instinct, through happenstance and mishap and magic. In the struggle for integration of the self we proceed by signs. Sometimes it's moving too fast to work out on paper. A highly intuitive person, for instance, may see in a flash that his place is alongside the poor, not in the hotel with the mimosas. He may see it all in a flash and have to go with it. There's no time to explain! Just stay here! Really, though. There's no time to explain! Really.
Anyway ... I got off track reading Jack Bauer lines. Look: We all get off track sometimes, OK? I've got to sit down and eat with these people! There isn't time to explain!
The thing is, what you may not have considered is that while you think you're the one who holds all the cards, the topsy-turvy truth is that these people at the homeless shelter have a lot to offer you. You already know how to drink mimosas. But do you know how to stay dry in the rain? Have you ever known hunger? It is a good thing to know, what hunger feels like. It is good to know the terror of finding yourself alone on the street with no food and no money and no idea where you are, knowing no one, having no phone numbers to call, having no sister or brother to drive and pick you up, having no parents to call upon, no children to call upon, no friends, no employers, no agencies. That's a good thing to know. It is a good thing to know what it feels like to wait and wait on a corner until you finally just fall asleep there on the cold, hard sidewalk. It's good to know when was the first time you realized you didn't have an address. These are things you might talk about as you eat your substandard cheese.
It's good to acknowledge, also, that what you are talking about is revolutionary consciousness. You are having a moment of revolutionary consciousness, in which higher principles have come to life for you, and you see them in conflict with how life is being lived, and you ask if you have the courage to follow these higher principles. I think you do. I think it is a revolutionary consciousness that can be expressed in a quiet, humble, Christian way, just by sitting down and sharing food with people.
What? You want more?