By Kim Grant, Street Chaplain in Externship
The warm an inviting aromas of hash brown casserole, cinnamon rolls, and strong hot coffee permeated the morning stillness, and gave a sense of how things ought to be on a cold winter’s morning. Those wonderful smells belied the fact that we were in the old Methodist Church turned into a winter shelter, a respite from the bitter cold, but definitely how things ought not to be. The old church offered a workable kitchen to prepare hot meals for our friends experiencing homelessness on these unbearable nights, and a hot breakfast before returning our friends to the reality that is life on the street. Folks were fed last night and loved as best we could. I looked into the tired eyes and my heart melted, as person after person came through the food line with a full plate and gratitude on their lips. One dear lady was shivering so badly, she was unable to hold her coffee cup. I wrapped my hands around hers as I poured her coffee. She was entirely grateful simply for a cup of hot coffee, let alone a good meal, and a mattress on the floor of the gym. It had been bitter, snowy and wet the previous three days and we received forty-eight friends experiencing homelessness into the shelter that night. Dinner was basic, although the corn bread was a particular hit! To a person the attitude was one of sincere appreciation and thanks for our efforts. Is it not the very least we can do, to offer a hot meal and shelter from the cold to our most marginalized fellow human beings?
After everyone had eaten, they settled in for the night. This shelter had decent bathrooms for everyone, and many washed up as best they could. We cleaned the kitchen and the food crew left around 10:30 to make our way home, as others stayed on for the night as innkeepers. The ride home offered time to process what I had just experienced, certainly one of the most life-changing nights of my life. I knew homelessness and hunger as a seventeen-year-old, having told my parents I was gay and leaving, never to return. It wasn’t prolonged homelessness though, just a few weeks, a short stint caused by a mixture of my rebelliousness and my parent’s lack of love. This was very different. Earlier in the evening I sat with several people as they ate, engaging them and acknowledging their humanity, our humanity. My heart is crushed, and blessed, and challenged to never look away again.
Awakening very early, I left the warmth of hearth and home with a full stomach, in the heat of my SUV, with a cup of coffee, and made my way back to the old church turned winter emergency shelter, to prepare breakfast. The coffee pots were alive with activity as the first order of business and priority. Our friends sheltered overnight would awaken soon with the flick of a switch, the harsh gym lighting transforming utter darkness into bright florescence, signaling morning. The ovens contained pans of hash brown casserole and other egg dishes, perfuming the kitchen and seeping under the still-closed door to the sleeping area. As the overnight staff began rousing the sheltered ones, I began to set up the hot food table. Breakfast and lots of hot coffee were welcomed by all, more than the reality that another day of life on the cold streets awaited them. We prepared brown bag lunches for our friends to take as well. Before long the last of our friends were shrouding themselves in layer upon layer of clothing and heading out into the paralyzing cold. My ride home was quiet, no radio or music as it seemed indulgent.
It took me a few days to process what I experienced, to make sense of the senseless. The dual nature of the experience continues to haunt me. On one hand there is such total need and lack of resources. Yet I feel a great sense of hope and purpose, having prayed for the opportunity to use my cooking skills to make a difference in people’s lives. I have cooked extravagant meals for wealthy clients, over the top fundraisers for professional theatre companies, multi course dinners for friends, and many gluttonous holiday meals around the table. Cooking a simple meal for our friends experiencing homelessness has outdone them all, and is the fulfillment of my heart’s desire to serve others. The sense of fulfillment in knowing that I am doing the work, the good work, for which I am uniquely gifted, overwhelms me, producing a deep sense of hope and gratitude. The warm and inviting aromas of hash brown casserole and strong coffee will forever signify one of the most blessed experiences of my life, for to this I am called.