Our small family had gotten out of the habit of occasionally serving the evening meal with Helping Hands Ministries, a soup kitchen in downtown Harrisburg. So today we rectified that. Helping Hands is one of those amazing loaves and fishes efforts held together by the passion and commitment of one woman, Kathleen, who has been keeping this movable feast going for eighteen years. Over that time she has built up an impressive line up of donors, area restaurants and stores that give their surplus, leftovers, and almost-expired stuff to be served up for dinner.
Lord knows where she stores all this food, but every Sunday she arrives at the church with a van full. The buckets and trays get whisked by volunteers onto serving tables and portioned out onto the waiting plates of those who line up for what may be their only meal of the day. Kathleen is everywhere at once, supervising the kitchen, lining up the food trays in the right order, directing and redirecting volunteers, and barking out orders, including the dictum that no one, NO ONE, can have a second desert until everyone has had one. After that its open season.
Today Helen was on sandwich making detail in the kitchen and Mei and I landed the important job of squirting whipped cream onto the diner’s sweet potato pie slices. If you know Mei, you know this was an ideal job for her. My role was preventing her from spraying the entire can into her own mouth when no one was looking. Since we were stationed by the sweets we also had to guard the deserts from opportunists.
Folks came through the line, the curious mix up people who needed a meal tonight. Some looked and smelled as if they were chronically homeless, sporting the wild hair and raw skin of people without shelter from the elements, lined up next to others who clearly had some way to keep themselves clean and pressed. The crowd was mostly men, and one couple with a baby.
Near the end of the procession came a man more weather beaten than most. His cheeks were sunken in, his teeth bad, hands ingrained with grime, his eyes a bit unfocused. He dithered over the deserts, undecided between red velvet cake and banana cream pie, settling on a slab of the latter. “Do you want whipped cream on that?” Mei asked (coals to Newcastle being no problem to her). He turned and noticed her, his face brightening. “Hello little girly!” he enthused, then put down his plates on the floor and began to rummage in his sack. And coat pockets. And pants pockets. And rummaged some more, until he pulled out a book marker and handed it to Mei. “For you” he said, then picked up his meal and shuffled away. She glanced at it and handed it to me. There was a picture of Mother Teresa at the top, and this quote:
God does not call us to do great things but to do small things with great love.
Wow. I breathed out. A homeless theologian. Here I was wondering if coming down here to squirt whipped cream onto plates had any meaning, and this guy had answered my question, bringing in no less an authority than the Angel of Calcutta.
I spent the rest of the serving time musing over the wonderful message God had slipped to me and resolving how I would continue to do small things with great love. Until my friend shuffled past on his way out, flipped through an enormous stack of book marks and and pressed two more into my hand. I held them up, wondering what wisdom was there. “SAVE SEX” one proclaimed. “Don’t waste your heart, body, future on the pretenders. WAIT FOR YOUR MATE” . The other assured me that abortion is a sin.
OK, not the messages I was looking for. And given the enormous stash of book marks this guys has, I assume he scoops them up by the handful at another church where he gets his meal on a different night. and hands them out indiscriminately. Which means Mother Teresa’s wisdom may not have been selected just for me. But I’ll take it anyway. They are good words for a new year. Pretty similar to these words from one of my other favorite Catholic Saints, Dorothy Day:
“The sense of futility is one of the greatest evils of the day…People say, “What can one person do? What is the sense of our small effort?” They cannot see that we can only lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time; we can be responsible only for the one action of the present moment. But we can beg for an increase of love in our hearts that will vitalize and transform all our individual actions, and know that God will take them and multiply them, as Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes.”
Meanwhile, I watched Kathleen as she spoke to each diner, giving them focused attention when they came up to her, often ending with a big hug. The clean and tidy right along with the smelly and dirty. And I wonder if the real miracle of small things here is not the food, although organizing this meal week after week is beyond me, but the gift of attention, respect and seeing the humanity of each person. Thank God for such small things and may it be multiplied by us.