Day 231: The Best Way to Learn the World Is to Experience It

I went through a phase in high school when I thought I could save the world.   I thought overnight, everything would be different because I did not like what I was hearing.  I, for the first time in my life, watched the news for more than just the weather.  I was horrified by the stories that were broadcasted.  People were dying in Ethiopia because of drought and lack of food.  War raged in South Africa between people because of the color of skin.  I was appalled and quite frankly, frightened by what was happening in the world.

Until that point, I had been sheltered by my parents.  I lived an easy life in a nice suburban neighborhood on Cleveland’s west side.  I cared about nothing but what was happening in my own little world.  I never worried about if there would be a next meal or how much the things I wanted cost.  Suddenly, everything that was important to me seemed trivial and egocentric.  I was embarrassed at my selfishness.  I decided I wanted to stop my ill feelings by stopping the pain of people all over the world who were not handed things on that proverbial silver platter as I had always been.  I had one problem, though.  I had too much energy without any real way to channel it.  How was I to reach the people in Ethiopia or South Africa?  I could not exactly go there.  As much as I wanted to change the world, I was unwilling to sacrifice the comforts I was accustomed to go be a missionary.

After much time, anxiety, and deliberation, I realized how I could be of service and help.  I had read in the Cleveland paper that a church in Cleveland’s downtown area was in need of volunteer help in their soup kitchen.  The church was St. Malachy’s.  Working in a soup kitchen was not exactly saving the world, but by volunteering, I was not letting the world pass me by, either.  I thought I could save lives right in my own hometown, and then next year, save the rest of the world.

My first day was a lovely Sunday in October.  I awoke with the sun glistening on my face.  The pleasing weather conditions made me feel secure and enhanced my feelings of bringing well-being to all.  I quickly got out of bed and got ready to go.  I had never been in a situation like this before, so I had no idea what I was required to wear.  I figured that I would be cooking or serving food, so I decided to dress casually.  I knew I was going to wear an apron, anyway.  I opened my closet and looked inside.  After some deliberation, I grabbed a comfy pair of Guess jeans and my favorite wool Benetton sweater.  I looked at myself quickly in the full length mirror after dressing.  Not only was I extremely comfortable, but I looked cute, too.  I decided on the way out the door that I should probably wear this outfit out the next Friday night.

I got in my car and drove out of my familiar surroundings.  The trees looked beautiful; the leaves radiated their autumn browns and oranges in the sun.  I noticed as I got off the highway into St. Malachy’s neighborhood that there were very few trees.  I became aware of the differences in the exterior of houses and buildings.  Everything seemed slightly neglected and dilapidated.  I was suddenly aware that I did not know what exactly to expect. For the first time since this notion of saving the world entered my mind, I realized I was chartering virgin waters and what I was about to encounter would be far different from anything I had ever experienced before.

I parked my car and hesitantly got out.  The kitchen was in the basement of the church, and the people milling around outside looked unsavory.  My stomach churned; all sorts of ideas were shooting around in my brain.  I could just get back in the car and drive home.  No one will know.  I probably wouldn’t even be missed.  No!  I knew if I backed down, I would regret it for the rest of my life.  How could I expect to change anything if I could not overcome my own fears?   I always got a little jittery when starting something new, so I knew the trepidation was a normal feeling for me.  I composed myself and went in.

I entered through the back door marked “Volunteers and Help.”  People were fluttering about performing miscellaneous kitchen duties. I stopped for a second to take in my surroundings. There were men cooking over huge kettles and grills, and women slicing vegetables and loaves of bread. They were like a machine in motion.  I took a deep breathe and took in the aroma.  I could not distinguish one certain type of food, but it made my mouth water.    Everyone was carrying out their own job with speed and accuracy without disturbing another’s progress.

I noticed in the corner of the kitchen an office.  I walked over to the open door and knocked.  I peaked in and saw a heavy-set, greying woman sitting behind a desk shuffling paper work.  I cleared my throat, “Excuse me.  I’m volunteering in the….”

I was cut off.  “Yes in the soup kitchen.  You must be Cheryl.  I am Mrs. Simon, the volunteer coordinator.  I spoke with you on the phone.  I will give you a tour, introduce you to the other volunteers, and then show you what you will be doing today.”  Her warm smile and friendly voice calmed me instantly.

As she showed me around and introduced me to the other workers, I realized what seemed like so many people actually was not.  Only twelve people volunteered per shift.  The other volunteers were all adults, but that did not seem intimidating because each person was exceptionally nice.

The last person I met was Bill, the head cook.  “Welcome, welcome,” he said.  “You are going to definitely bring a fresh glow to this tired, old crew.  We’re glad to have you.”

Mrs. Simon took me into the dining area where I would be serving food.  The dining hall was poorly lit and I could tell it needed a coat of paint.  Immediately, I noticed that people were waiting for the kitchen line to open.  Most people were wearing what appeared to be second-hand clothing, out of date and in many cases, unclean.  Many of the men were unshaven.  The children were quiet and respectful.  The women looked me over.   At first, I thought they were probably envious of my expensive name brand clothes.  Of course I was wearing the top designer names because I would not be caught dead in anything without a name.  However, looking around, I suddenly felt embarrassed of my shallowness.  My names brand were irrelevant in the scheme of things, and I couldn’t wait to put on an apron.  These people were surviving, and that was all.  I had so much to learn about life, about what was important, about myself.

Mrs. Simon handed me an apron and a ladle.  I was given a spot in the line.  My job was to dish out mashed potatoes.  I tried not look people in the eyes, I thought it would embarrass them.  I also did not want to engage people in conversation.  I did not know what I had in common with people in a soup kitchen.  It seemed to me that to ignore the people and just ladle the food was best for us all.  I was wrong.  Because of my aloof attitude, certain people quietly heckled me.  Comments were thrown at me by some of the guests in line.  One man with missing teeth said, “You want me to take you on a date tonight?”   Someone else whispered, “Why aren’t ya at the mall, Honey?”  The one that hurt the worst was “Why ya workin’ here?  You’re not gettin’ paid.”

I heard their comments in my core.  The way they looked at me was not what I expected.  I expected people to bow down and thank me, but I realized that was ridiculous.  My sheer presence was condescending, and I knew to gain their respect, I would have to earn it.  “The Little Suburban Girl Changes the World” was not going to be the head line of the evening paper.  I had put myself on a pedestal, and I was quickly brought down off of it.  This was life.  I was seeing it in full color.  I realized it was time for me to treat the guests with the dignity they deserved.  I started to look people in the face and smile.  Instead of expecting gratitude, I thanked them for taking the mashed potatoes from me.

My three-hour shift finally ended.  Mrs. Simon asked me how things went.  I smiled politely and said “fine” because it had.  However, when I pulled out of St. Malachy’s parking lot, I began to cry.   I cried not because of the way I was treated by certain people, but that we lived in such a world that allowed for such disaparity.  I cried because for sixteen years I had been sheltered from poverty and people in need.  I cried because I was so naive; I thought people were going to be so thankful to me when all I was doing is what I should be doing– I was helping my fellow-man.

Even though working at St. Malachy’s made me uncomfortable, I did not quit.  I made a committment, and I was going to see it through.  I was a very small part of St. Malachy’s operation, not really there long enough to make an impression on anyone or anything.  However, that kitchen and those people made a lasting impression on me.

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