On a Monday in March we all filed into the Grant Avenue Street Reach Soup Kitchen along with a bunch of other volunteers and a long, long line of hungry mouths to feed.
I won’t lie, I had a bad attitude about this service project. I was tired and not at all in the mood to wrestle other volunteers out of the way so that I could bus a table. They handed us aprons, and although Kathleen, who was in charge of the kitchen, greeted us with a smile, we were left with very little instruction. There were people everywhere. No place to stand in which we weren’t in the way, and not enough jobs for everyone do to.
I knew I should be serving with a willing heart, but standing in that crowded room looking at the faces of all those strangers, I felt like I was wasting my time. There were so many other volunteers waiting for something to do. It was truly unnecessary for me to be there, especially when I had things I could be doing for my own host site.
Then, as though God were giving me a swift kick in the rear end, I had a conversation with John. He was a disheveled, minute, older gentleman, with a red hat on his head that was far too big for him and shifted uneasily over his eyes. He was missing a front tooth, and his hands were cut and calloused. He carried a large grocery bag filled with random odds and ends, and balanced his food tray precariously in one hand as he fumbled around in his pocket for a well-used handkerchief. Without thinking about it, I offered to take his tray for him and followed him to his seat.
Lunch that Monday was spaghetti and BBQ pork sandwiches, with an array of various mismatched side dishes. John had chosen fruit and salad to go with his meal, and as he sat down he began to carefully wrap his pork sandwich up in layers of newspaper. “It’s for later.” He explained sheepishly, and I just nodded, as though I could possibly understand what it might be like to be him. “I’m John.” He said as he extended his worn and grubby hand to me. “Molly.” I said, taking it, and for the first time all day, I smiled.
He told me that he used to be an electrician in Michigan when he was a young man, and that he served in the Air Force for several years. He proudly showed me a tiny American Flag pin that was secured to his suspenders. I retrieved a hot cup of coffee for him and he continued to tell me little pieces of his life story every time I walked by; he was so eager for someone to talk to. His wife had passed away over ten years ago, and she was the love of his life. Her name was Margaret and she worked as an elementary teacher. John quietly told me that she had the most beautiful green eyes he’d ever seen, and he had fallen in love with her on the dance floor at a friend’s Christmas party. He stared wistfully away for a while, remembering to himself, and I felt like I was intruding on a private moment. He said they had been married for 45 years, and owned a little ranch house with white rose bushes. He doesn’t know how he got to Denver, doesn’t even remember, just that one day he couldn’t be in that house without her any more so he left.
I spent most of the rest of the afternoon in the kitchen, doing dishes, making sandwiches, and organizing other volunteers that had never worked in a kitchen before. The head cook took me aside and thanked me for being so adept and not in the way. That moment should have made me feel acknowledged and useful, but honestly, I wanted to be back out in the dining room talking to those that were eating lunch.
As the afternoon drew to a close, and people started to clear out I noticed John was still sitting in the same place I had left him, nursing a cup of coffee. So I strolled over to see if I could get him anything else. He looked up at me startled, and as his eyes focused on my face he grinned, a lopsided, toothless smile. “I’m all finished,” he said, and he began to pack up his things and leave. But, at the last moment he grabbed my hand again, “Thank you for chatting with me today. Most people don’t want to talk to me…” He looked down, and when he looked at me again there was a tear rolling down his cheek. “And you young lady, your eyes, remind me a lot of my Maggie. Take care. God Bless you.” Then he ambled out of the basement.
Of course then I was crying.
It wasn’t the food that was important that day. Or the clean up, or making coffee. It was remembering that these people are human beings with hopes and histories and feelings. In that church basement, surrounded by strangers, I mattered for a moment to a man named John and that is really humbling.