Service Calling

The crowd lining up for a free hot lunch at the Akron mission where I volunteer is larger than usual today. In the kitchen, fellow servers simmer fragrant stew and slice home-baked cakes.

I drop in on conversations about children's sports, college visits, plans for spring break.

Then I cross the threshold to the gym that doubles as a dining hall. Waiting there is a frayed patchwork of people loosely pulled together by the common thread of hunger. Stooped men in pilled hats. Women missing front teeth. Young men who slouch or swagger to their tables, where a few will say grace and a few will coax spoonfuls of stew into toddlers. Soft-spoken grandmothers with corn silk hair. Day laborers who hurry to catch a bus back to work. Teen girls shifting babies from hip to hip. Mothers with children of all ages, doing everything mothers do.

I work the floor with two others. We carry food, set up high chairs, clear tables, mop spills of sloshed milk. By now our faces are familiar. We exchange smiles with diners, chat with them during lulls. Sometimes we get to hold the babies.

When I first volunteered with the poor, I suffered under a common form of romanticism. I expected to swoop in like a benevolent, rescuing angel. I envisioned scenes as warming as homemade chicken soup, all of us steeped in a broth of brotherly and sisterly love.

This fine mirage evaporates like steam from the stockpot once our feet hit the floor and the aprons are tied around our waists.

There is nothing remotely romantic about poverty or our attempts to assuage it. It is trench work. It is grounded in the here and now of growling stomachs. It is not about the elevation of our guests' class status or our own sense of virtue.

Over the years, I've worked in several places that serve the needy. Almost all of my fellow volunteers are kind, their hearts open and humble. But I have also witnessed some who, perhaps unknowingly, radiate disapproval toward those they serve. Their body language, their sotto voce laments of "poor choices" — "Why do they keep having babies? Why isn't that child in school? Did you see that man just throw his mashed potatoes in the trash?" — imply that they would never allow this to happen to them. I bite my tongue, all too aware I am judging the judgmental.

Most people standing in line for a free hot meal are congenial and polite. Others are indifferent, or stoned, or rude, in the exact proportions I found when I waited tables in an upscale restaurant. Yet because they pay no money for this food, the poor — whose positive role models are often few, and for whom mere survival is a real issue — are somehow expected to be more socially adept, more gracious and grateful.

Grinding, relentless need is not ennobling. It breeds rage and despair. It slackens the jaw and dims the eyes.

I wonder, when I hear those disapproving, whispered comments, if some people might better serve the charities they support by writing a monthly check. I think about Kahlil Gibran's cautions against baking "a bitter bread that feeds but half man's hunger." The poor can read disdain in a volunteer's face. I've seen the pursed lips of the server act as a kind of poison, slipped into food meant to nourish.

Years ago, I was asked to serve on a committee analyzing poverty in Summit County. I had served on nonprofit committees before, but my contributions were an ungenerous form of charity. I chafed at the endless meetings, the struggle between egos.

Committee work was a poor choice for me. But many people's skills are well-suited for it. And committees can mobilize crucial action for good, organizing initiatives that improve education, offer child care and transportation and put people to work.

So I turned to a wise pastor about my guilty resistance to sign on. "I don't want to study poverty," I confessed. "I just want to feed people." Maybe it's self-serving, I said, this need to connect physically to the people I'm helping.

His plainspoken response was freeing.

"No one should feel obligated to serve in a way that feels unnatural," he said. "Do the work you want to do." He added that it's hard to find people willing to work among the poor once they've tried it.

That workhorse of the New Testament, Paul, reminded the Romans that "we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us." He ticked off a list that included leader, teacher, healer, exhorter, as well as the compassionate.

In this season marked by giving, generous Northeast Ohioans who have more than they need are asking themselves, How can I help? These good impulses keep us human. They also deserve our careful consideration. If we decry others' poor choices, the least we can do is take an honest look at our own.

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