A few days ago my family invited me to accompany them to the Schenectady City Mission. My father and brothers have volunteered there before as food servers, but I was abroad in France during the times they went. So I was pretty excited when I was asked to go. I waited for my father in Humanities, peeking out the window every two minutes with slight impatience. Finally, he arrived and we were underway. It took approximately three minutes to reach the mission from Union, possibly a ten to fifteen minute walk, and as we drove by I saw 15-20 people standing outside in the cold, waiting to be allowed in. After parking the car I walked through this small crowd and felt a relative unease looking into the faces of these hungry souls, some only partially bundled against the frosty air. I couldn’t figure out why I felt so uneasy and it bothered me. It wasn’t until an older gentleman opened the door for me that I realized what it was. I felt a certain sense of shame. Shame that this was my first time coming to the mission to help out, shame that I was so perfectly protected from the cold, shame that this man was opening the door for me, smiling at me like I was the Queen of America. Who am I and what makes me so very different from those around me? Money? Youth? Education? Class? I felt myself wondering why it all matters when, at the end of the day, we are all struggling to survive in some way.
After fastening an apron around my waist, sliding latex gloves onto my hands, and slipping a hairnet over my head, I stepped out into the dining room. Tables and chairs were set up and bowls of soup on long, metal trays were being transported out of the kitchen to a table already laden with various baked goods. After soaking it in for a few minutes, I glanced up at the door and saw many faces peering in at us, waiting and expectant. It was hard for me to look. I moved away, towards the kitchen, and was quickly asked to be a salad server, which effectively meant I wouldn’t be leaving the kitchen nor would I be serving anyone. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, but obediently took my place in the kitchen and began portioning out bits of greenery, tomatos, peppers, and cucumbers. The meal that night was rice with beef stew: a hearty, warm meal. The door to the mission was unlocked and the next thing I knew people were filing in, picking up a bowl of soup, and filling up the dining room tables. I kept rationing salad as I didn’t have very much to work with.
Plates started to be taken out and I watched as my father and brothers made several trips into the dining room. They placed plate after plate in front of people and then scurried back into the kitchen for more. It seemed very robotic and methodic to me. Pick up plate, walk with plate, put down plate, repeat. I watched for the slightest bit of interaction between any of the servers and recipients and was surprised to see only a few instances where a connection seemed to take place. But who was I to comment on this when I was sequestered in the kitchen, looking out at the 65 or so amassed people, like a silent voyeur? After the meal was finished we helped clean the dining room by wiping down tables and setting up new cups and napkins. It was then that I had my first and only exchange of the evening with one of the diners. She was relatively young, perhaps later 20’s at most, and appeared to be quite heavy. I happened to glance at her for what seemed to be no more than 2 seconds as she skirted behind me for a packet of sugar. She looked directly at me and said, “I’m pregnant.” I nodded my head and smiled politely, confused as to where the comment had come from. She briefly held my gaze. I waited for her to continue, but instead she turned and headed towards the back of the mission. I followed her with my eyes. Again the feeling of unease, of shame. She had immediately assumed I was judging her, mentally poking fun at her. I was saddened that she put me up on that judgmental pedestal, a pedestal of false superiority, one to be loathed. Then I really thought about things. She had every right to place me there along with all the other “servers”. We show up to volunteer one night a week, or perhaps one night a month, in order to feel some sort of self-satisfaction. We want to feel good about ourselves, good about what we have “done” for others, good that we have somehow helped. But wouldn’t it be more helpful if we actually helped? That is to say wouldn’t it be more helpful if, instead of serving food and separating ourselves from others, we actually sat down with them, picked up our forks and knives, and shared a meal together? Just a thought.
Life can be difficult for all no matter what their background is, who they are, or how much money they have. Everyday we struggle to survive, to make ends meet, to trudge forward when hardships are thrown in our way. We are resilient individuals, extraordinary in what we can overcome and accomplish. But I believe that sometimes we forget that, although we are individuals, it isn’t all about us. We breathe the same air as billions of others and, as long as we are breathing, we can make a change, we can choose to view others differently, to reach out and connect. I believe that what we crave the most in life are these sorts of true connections, a connection that betters not only one soul, but the soul of the other as well. So don’t sequester yourself in the kitchen, dropping lumps of salad onto plates. Get out there and mingle. Get out there and sit, talk, listen, learn, appreciate. I know that it is high time I do just that.