This year for lent, I decided I wouldn't give anything up, but instead decided I would add something to my life experience. I decided to volunteer at a Soup Kitchen in my town every Saturday, and as often as they needed me. It's not that I'm independently wealthy or have nothing to do with my time. Right now I am searching for permanent employment that will provide me with the means to support my Mom in her retirement and afford to buy a house and have a family. But since I have my time to myself, I thought rather than pine for money, I would use this time to grow as a man and do something I had never done before- volunteer to feed the needy. 

Today I went to the kitchen, made a pile of hot dogs and beans to serve to the underserved and indigent. And spent my morning in a way that not only nourished the bodies of men, women and children of all colors and creeds but also nourished my soul and heart. While we waited for the water to boil and the crowd to assemble, a few co-workers and I started talking about politics. 

This is not a conversation I felt comfortable starting because I live in a very conservative state, and my current feelings lead me to be more liberal and progressive. I thought if I had brought up the subject of politics, I would quickly be shown the door as no one I know seems to agree with me that Bernie Sanders is the guy we need to start a new America. And to be sure, my coworkers did not agree with me on my choice for president, but they also did not treat me poorly for my thoughts either. In fact, I didn't start the conversation but joined it as an interloper and fully expected to be asked to leave, but was welcomed to air my thoughts in the most open way, and when we were done I found that while we all thought different about who was running, we all agreed on one point, America is not the place we thought it was. 

Of particular interest to me was a woman I spoke with, who was the caretaker of four young men who had run afoul of the law in a minor way and were working their way back to the straight and narrow by volunteering their time. I guessed that her full-time gig was a social worker of sorts but never really found out what she did for a living. I made an assumption based on her words and role in the kitchen. What she did tell me was she was 62 years old and the four young men she was there to look over were some of the nicest young men I have met. She stated that she wanted to retire but that she could not afford to retire as her social security was not enough to live on, so she figured she would have to work until 67 when the check she expected would be bigger. That sparked our conversation. 

I told her that my Mom also had a tough time living on her social security and that they had in fact just cut it this year by upping the cost of her medical that they deducted from her check. The woman then told me about her Mom who had it all right, when she retired with a pension, a social security check, VA benefits and enough to support her two other less than productive children until her death. 

We both shook our heads at the torture the elderly are forced to experience these days while previous generations seemed to have it so much better. Our conversation turned to health care and how none of the candidates really will fix anything and have no plans to if elected. An older African American gentlemen joined us in this conversation stating that neither Trump nor Hillary nor any other really could be trusted to fix anything as all his hope for America was lost. 

That is when I started trying to sell them on the idea of the Bern and the revolution we so desperately need. They sympathized with my argument but failed to see what I saw in the promise of a future. I apologized to them both for my optimism but understood their points as well. We all, it turned out, had hoped for change with Obama and over eight years, all found ourselves in the same spot. Without enough to live on and hoping to find some solace in helping those who could not help themselves. 

The conversation ended and the prayer was said before we began serving. The line went out the door and we filled the room twice before the lines finally began to cease. In this line I saw Moms and Dads, I saw latino, white, but mostly black faces. I saw strait, gay and transgender folks as well as disabled and abled bodied men. But at the end of the line, I saw a sight that broke my heart. I saw an older man, probably pushing 80, with white hair and dark skin. The man looked different than all the others though because he held his head high unlike the other dejected souls begging for a hot meal. His spine was upright, his figure trim and his otherwise worn out shirt was tucked neatly into his ragged jeans that fit him as if he picked them off the rack at a Goodwill- close but not quite the right fit. 

When he handed his tray to me to fill, I asked him if he wanted gravy on his rice and looked into his long worn eyes. They were framed by a ball cap that was much cleaner than everything else he wore and stated "USMC, Retired" This man was a vet, eating at a soup kitchen, and likely that was the only hot meal he would get this weekend. 

I didn't thank him for his service, although I wanted to. I didn't ask him how his day was going or anything that might make him stand out from anyone else in the room. He didn't need a reminder from me that he had once served our country and now the fact that I, for all he knew, a rich white guy slumming to work off a drunk driving charge or whatever,  was serving him alongside the homeless, mentally ill and  the drug-addicted. No one needs a reminder of their past when they are at the soup kitchen, they just need a few hot morsels of a food before they head back to whatever forgotten corner of the world they call home. And I didn't want to make his experience any more demeaning. 

The line moved along after him, and when I saw a pimp and his prostitute confirm what I thought was a drug deal while he requested double hot dogs, I quickly moved on from the Vet. My mind went back to my work and another day at the Soup Kitchen closed with great success. We served over 200 souls, used all the food we prepared with precious little waste and even got to send home with many, doggy bags of hot dogs, beef in gravy, collard greens and baked beans, which we knew would likely never see a dog's mouth but were content in knowing they would eat at least once more before Monday when the kitchen reopens.

And on my way out of the parking lot, in my shiny car with my expensive coffee mug and newly purchased jacket, I thought about all those people who want for a better life. I thought, "I'm broke and there but for the grace of God go I". Today I served, but tomorrow I could be one of those being served. Its not likely, I have a degree and a pile of credentials. I have a home to go to and a set of clean clothes to put on when I wash the beans off my shirt. But the Woman in her 60's, the African American chef in the  kitchen, the four boys who made a bad choice, but lived to tell the tale, the 80-year old vet and even the Pimp and his prostitute, we all want the same thing. A better life with more promise and a real change to the status quo. We all want that, regardless of who we are voting for this election. 

I could tell you this experience opened my eyes, but it didn't. I knew all this existed before I ever put on the apron. I came to the kitchen cause I knew what I would find. It's the same way it has always been in my life and in their lives. It never changes. Ever. But I refuse to give up on the idea that one day, I won't be able to volunteer at the soup kitchen, because one day, maybe there wont be  a need. And that is what this season of lent and this election are all about for me.  

  

 

 

 

 

Published by Christopher Richard