I have to admit my Volunteer Odyssey experience is really testing the boundaries of my comfort level. It isn’t easy for me (perhaps, for most people) to show up at a place where I’ve never been, meet people whom I’ve never met, and perform tasks with which I have little to no experience. Serving at St. Mary’s Soup Kitchen required all of this, plus arriving at 7:15AM. I planned my arrival very carefully, allowing for extra time. What’s worse than being nervous AND being late?
The night before, I entered all the details into my phone and on day three I left my house extra early. I drove to St. Mary’s and parked in the lot on the west side, behind the church. It was seven o’clock on the dot and I sat in my car, sipping coffee and staring at the small staircase where I was to meet the kitchen manager, Ron. When he didn’t show up, I worried I was at the wrong entrance. So, I went inside looking for someone who might know where to send me.
Inside I met several nice ladies, hard at work in the kitchen. Yes, they were preparing food for the homeless, but were puzzled by my presence, insisting that Ron NEVER arrives before 8:00AM and that St. Mary’s really isn’t a “soup kitchen”. How could this be? I looked up the website the night before and it undoubtedly stated, St. Mary’s Soup Kitchen. So, I decided to pull up the website on my phone and show these women that they were clearly mistaken. When I handed my phone to one of them, she looked at me with what can only be described as a “bless your heart” expression and said, “Oh honey, you’re going to St. Mary’s Catholic Church. This is St. Mary’s EPISCAPOL Church.”
[gulp] I was mortified… and LATE.
When I arrived at the right St. Mary’s, the breakfast line had already formed and I had to scoot ahead of it to make way into the kitchen. There was so much hustle and bustle and no time for anyone to give instructions to the late girl. So, I inserted myself into any task that seemed helpful, hoping to redeem myself and establish that I am not THAT person. I began by helping Harold (who needed no help) open the ground beef.
Living with vegetarians, I don’t often cook meat, much less 25 POUNDS of ground beef! But that’s how my day began at St. Mary’s. I stirred the world’s largest pot of ground beef- enough for six colossal pots of soup that will eventually provide 600 (16oz.) servings. I helped prep what seemed like hundreds of ham salad sandwiches to accompany hundreds of PBJs that were ready when I arrived. I was the rookie assistant to a seasoned group of volunteers that were so inspiring to me that I don’t know that my words can do them justice. While Harold, Donna, and I prepped sandwiches and washed dishes, Vera and Barbara ladled what must have been more than 100 cups of soup.
As the second meal time of 9:00AM approached, the volunteers were gathered around the kitchen island for a little pre-meal pep talk by Soup Kitchen Manager, Ron Bezon. Ron explained the routine of how the food would be distributed, probably for my benefit as a first-timer because the efficiency of this team was top notch. After a brief pep talk, we all held hands in a circle as someone recited The Soup Kitchen Prayer. Then Ron assigned everyone a place to be. Martin, who seems to play a very integral part in the St. Mary’s operation served as protector, making sure things stayed copacetic during meal time. Several of my new friends stayed in the kitchen cleaning and prepping for another day. I was in the hot seat- that is… the place of passing out the food. Vera made sure there was always a cup of soup in my reach and her mother Anna handed me a bundle of two sandwiches and a snack to pass with the soup to each person in line. I spoke to each and every person, trading smiles with many, but mostly just kindly saying, “Good Morning.”
I want to tell you that this service I provided, that fulfillment of a basic need for my fellow Memphians was the highlight of my day. It’s true, there are boundless intrinsic rewards that accompany this type of volunteering. However, it was the people who showed me what to do- the total strangers in the kitchen that helped me help others- who really heightened the experience. Those wonderful people, who are so giving of themselves with no expectation, no judgment, centered my faith in my community.
I think that my experience at St. Mary’s Soup Kitchen may have changed my life and I don’t know if my writing skills are adequate enough to explain why, but I do know that I am going back next week…on time.
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