For the past few months, I’ve been helping to feed people in my downtown. Once a month I bring food to a local food ministry, and other people from my church bring food, and we heat it up in a big, giant kitchen. Then we open the doors, and anyone who wants to come and eat gets to come in and eat.
I have a confession here. I am not entirely comfortable with some kinds of people. Like the mentally ill. The homeless. Those who never bathe. Those without teeth. I tend to gravitate toward people who have more in common with me. And I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one.
And I know that’s not right. I have shown up to feed people because I KNOW I am supposed to love these people. And by these people I mean anyone–there are no requirements to eat at our ministry. But I find myself dealing with the little isms–some ageism, maybe some racism or sexism. Is there an ism about finances? If so, I sometimes struggle with that one. The little ways I define someone as part of a group that’s very different from me.
During these months, something has happened. I didn’t expect it. I accidentally found the cure to my personal case of isms. And you want to know the secret? I served.
I didn’t show up to fix anything. I’m not changing anyone. There are no sermons involved here. I simply pour coffee. I pass out cookies. I take special orders when I can.
And suddenly, it isn’t a room of people who are different and maybe scary. It’s a woman who likes coffee. And one who only wants water. It’s a man who doesn’t want rice on his plate. One who wants his food mixed together, and one who doesn’t want his food to touch.
It’s a table of people who are laughing, and a table of strangers giving each other the evil eye. It’s a man who says thank you and one who doesn’t make eye contact. It’s a woman who asks me to watch her backpack–which holds her every life possession–while she goes to the bathroom. It’s a man who lives in an apartment close by and one staying at a shelter. A woman who always wears a flower in her hair, a woman in a wheelchair, and a vegetarian.
It’s individuals. They’re people. And they have their own wants and needs and likes and dislikes and agendas. And the longer I serve, the more I see them that way, and the less I can apply an ism. Isms are about groups and the idea that every person in that group is identical to every other one. After people are grouped, sweeping judgments can be made. But really, nobody entirely fits in any group. People of different races or religions are not clones of each other. People with mental illness, the homeless, the underemployed–none of them are clones. I have to take each as what they are–unique people.
Somehow I am now in charge of our church’s monthly meal at the ministry. Yeah, I went from being wary to jumping in with both feet. I’m sort of hooked. I spend more time in the kitchen than out with people, because that’s who I am. But that doesn’t matter, because the change is still there. When I get a crazy special request, I smile, because it’s a new way to serve a human being, one with likes and dislikes and his or her own unique, God-given personality. Helps remind me that this is about individuals. Always.
We imagine we’re feeding people and somehow saving the world.
We’re feeding people. That’s true. But the saving part? I think I’m the one being saved.