The Table

 “And hold firmly to the rope of Allah all together and do not become divided. And remember the favor of Allah upon you – when you were enemies and He brought your hearts together and you became, by His favor, brothers. And you were on the edge of the pit of Fire, and He saved you from it. Thus does Allah make clear to you His verses that you may be guided.” (Qur’an 3:103)

When you eat the food of another culture it opens a small, brilliant window into their world. My lust for flavor aside, I enjoy the gustatory opportunity to explore. Food is life, and the taste of food reflects the flavor of a people. Food is where we restore and refresh ourselves, where we gather, where we commune with one another, sharing the vital elements of a shared life.

Through food, Radical Love carries our guests away for an hour with the smells and tastes of other worlds. Recent adventures have taken us from Syria to Portugal to Brazil. This week, it was Palestine with the main dish, rummmaneyye, coming from the Gaza region.

I especially enjoy sharing food with others from parts of the world where people are in situations of great distress, countries that may be getting a not-so-pleasant reputation when viewed through the eyes of American media. As an activist, I relish the opportunity to hand someone a plate of something wonderful while saying the name of some place they have come to suspect, or fear, or hate, mostly from lack of complete or correct information. A beautiful, delicious plate of food is like a handshake, a hug, a smiling introduction that promises to lift and satisfy. What better way to open the door to relationships and peace.

With fresh, wholesome contributions from Lower Columbia School Gardens and Willow Grove Gardens & Pumpkin Patch , our crew did a brilliant job of bringing together a beautiful, nutritious, delicious Palestinian meal.

We arrived, as usual, in a flurry.  The parking lot was already full of faces. Some were long time friends, but many were faces from our Saturday potluck, or faces from other meal shares, people we had met and invited who were coming to share our meal for the first time. Others were faces from the community, people from other worlds we inhabit, faces from the school gardens, faces from the Muslim community, from Love Overwhelming, from my own church. We had a full house, and the church’s caretaker had not yet come to open the door.

My head swirled. I was dizzy. I had a phone number. Where could I find it? What name was it under… the church? The caretaker? I looked at my phone but I couldn’t really see it. I poked at it, like a child poking at some suspicious object with a stick. Odd, distantly familiar screens flashed and slid, the words on them obscured through the bars of my descending cage of panic. My heart started to squeeze. We couldn’t get in the door. A wave of fear rose up like a hand from behind me and pressed me down. I slumped in the open door of my car and looked around. In the distance, the voice of children traveled across the little road from the Methodist Church next door. The door of my mind blew open and a swirl of thoughts came in. What if they forgot? What if we don’t get in? What if people are upset with me? Getting angry? Will we have to eat in the parking lot? What if it all comes apart?

Nested in my car seat, under the car port, I lifted my face. Patches of color peppered with familiar eyes undulated around me. The arch of my vision sparkled with blues and greens and greys and browns. Weary gems caught the sun as they flickered in their tired brown faces. Some opened toward me and I said their names. In the watercolors of my world, I found Irene.

“What do I do? I don’t know what to do.”

Irene smiled in her placid, even way. “It’s ok. Someone will come.”

Inside me was an emergency. My heart pounded like a fist against the inside of my ribs. My mouth was dry. My head turned towards the sound of the children. In my watercolor, I found Gary. The sun lit through the playful curls framing his eyes. I spoke to them through my liquid world. “The church. There’s people there. Please, go tell them no one has opened the door.”

A few kicks against the current, a pivot in the soup of my panic, and I was facing the door. I swam past Joshua. “Maybe there’s been an accident,” I said. He shrugged slightly. “Maybe someone got some bad news,” I added. Josh nodded. The emergency inside of me didn’t seem to be reflected by those around me. A ripple in front of me. It was Caleb, from Love Overwhelming. I spoke to him,”I don’t have to panic, right? It’s going to be alright? This is not one of those times where things are going to just fall apart?” Caleb shook his head, “It’s fine,” he said, “In fact, here he comes now.”

Within moments, the door was open. Within moments, hands reached out and, together, the tribe ushered our feast through the door. The tendrils of the complicated net that surrounds me, that keeps me from hitting the ground, swooped gently up and fluttered in the ripples from the Slipstream. Arms were hugging. Dishes went through the door, hand to hand. Voices mingled and there was laughter among them. The life from the food, the energy of our communion, spun through the crowd as we uttered our incantation. Magic. And soon our meal was taking shape.

My knot of fear gently softened, melting slightly into the energy that grew. Still, the vague edges and rippling landscapes of my watercolor remained. I swam forward in it, looking for guests who were here for the first time. It was time to anchor, in these waters, to connect. Erin, from the Lower Columbia School Gardens, was suddenly in front of me. “How can we help?” she asked. Next to her were Shae and Nicole, radiance springing up from them as if from the stalks of bright flowers. They brought forth the beauty of the garden, ready to be a part. The energy of the room hummed through me as I traveled the arc of their smiles. “You can serve!” I told them, leading them to the kitchen. I made the first plate for them as an example, then, with confidence, let that task go. With all three of them personing the buffet I could turn my attention to other things.

In the colors of the kitchen, I found two more friends. The Emam, Brian, and his mother, from the Kelso Longview Islamic Community, had been friends of ours for some time. My son and I had been attending Friday prayers to learn about our neighbors’ faith and to build community with them. The loving company we had been sharing for months had suddenly broken through the confines of the masjid door and come into another facet of our world. I greeted my friends with enthusiastic embraces. From their bags emerged delicious, nutritious foods brought to share with our guests, including a warm white bag filled with freshly boiled eggs. As Brian’s mother, Mona, placed the eggs in my hands I felt their warmth travel through me. I looked into Mona’s open, shining face and my heart pressed up with emotion and gratitude. This was why we were here. Community. Connection. I threw my arms around her, again, and pressed her to me. Her loving, motherly embrace held me to her heart. We paused there, taking in the depth of our fellowship, before continuing to unpack her bags.

“We are so glad to be here,” she told me as she sat out bagged portions of dog food and treats. I held the warm eggs as I looked at the bags, kibble with biscuits, then up to the faces of my friends. Animal friends who struggle with homelessness are often even more forgotten than their human companions, but my loving friend from the masjid had remembered them. These beautiful people coming to our shared table for the first time had set another place, one for our animal companions. The arms of our family opened even wider. The energy of our communion surged, again, as my son joyfully carried her gift out into the room.

Through the colors, I swam, greeting friends, welcoming newcomers, arms and arms and eyes and faces, all swirled through and peppered with plates bright with flavor, and health, and life. Bright blue bachelor buttons lit up the deep red of the muhammara and the room filled with happy talk and laughter. Soon, with the crowd served, all of us found a seat at the table. Mother Kathleen and one of our new guests swapped recipes. Our friends from the school gardens shared their meal with Tempest, and some of our other long time friends. Brian and Mona settled near some new friends we at met at Feed the Need. And I, drifting eagerly around in my net, rode the gentle current around the room.

Near the kitchen, I found Caleb. He was holding his empty plate, eyes round and shining. I grabbed his arm excitedly, “How do you like it??” I asked him, anxiously, indicating our collection of guests. “How was your food?” Over the top of my head, he took in the room. “This is amazing,” he said, scanning the crowd. “There is nothing like this. There is no restaurant in town where you can get food this good, get these flavors.” I laughed out loud.

The colors in my painting shimmered as I took that in. In my eyes, my hands, my mouth, at this communal table, I am alive. Alive in my fingers as skin touches skin, my hand on an arm soft with delicate, sun bleached hair and crisp with the dry salt of sweat. Alive in the faces, our garden of flowers, blue and brown and green and grey, lifting their petals up for light.  Alive in the arms, heart pressed against heart, resting in an other’s embrace.  Alive in the tears. In their stories. In their names. Alive in the meal we share, as we taste the same flavors and lift the same cup, excited and entertained by flavor and color. Maybe we aren’t the best restaurant in town, but it fills me to overflowing to serve people so often forgotten a spectacular, healthful meal.

Soon, the colors of my world swirled toward the door. I grabbed a few friends, made a few more introductions, and gave hugs and kisses to friends as they left. Tempest thanked me excitedly as he headed down the walk. Halfway to the parking lot he turned, and raised his fists in the air. “I even got to POOP!” he cried, and we shared a laugh as he disappeared beyond the trees.

The chaos inside of me hums with the electric energy of our communion. I am intoxicated with the power generated when we come together. That day, so many different colors from our community, joined together for a meal. We sat down together, a deliberate family, and made the circle wider. We made room at the table, opened the doors to deeper relationship, built even more strongly the foundations of the community we share. I was overcome by it.

I am an outlier. An outcast. A misfit. I come from a culture underground. Communion, community, has not been a feature of my existence. Yet, somehow, I have become a hub.

Worn completely, we made our way home. We would make a quick stop at the Grocery Outlet, then I was heading to bed. My son, good friends with many of the workers there, burst through the door ahead of me as I limped in behind. The voices of friends shaped my name. My gentle net shifted beneath me. Another home. Anxious to get to bed, I called for my son. From behind me a voice said, “He’s in the break room with Scott.”

Scott is a dear friend of ours. He loves my son and makes lots of room for his enthusiasm and desire to connect. They have worked together many times, stocking shelves, crushing boxes. Every time we go to Grocery Outlet the question comes, “If Scott is there, can I help?” I was sure I would find him with Scott.

The swirling colors of my world had slowed. The edges gently lapped around me as I went to retrieve my son. When we moved to this community four and a half years ago, we hadn’t intended to stay. This was to be a jumping off place into something else. I wanted to get closer to other outliers, find a way, at last, to belong. I wanted to find a place for me, as me, a place where what I am, as I am, could be embraced. Maybe even an asset. Not in spite of. Because of. Where it was o.k. to be broken. Where it was o.k. to need help. Where people could really see me. Where the best of what I had could be held forward along with all the rest of the swirling colors that come out of me from my frenetic insides, an offering, a plea, an exultation.

My son was in the break room with Scott. I had gone from the loving hands of our family at the meal into the loving hands of another. In this store, we were surrounded by loving friends. Scott, at that moment, was being a friend and role model for my son. With each slow, limping step I took forward, this new realization inside of me rose. We were surrounded. Friends, purpose, community. My beautiful net, trembling at the edges, catching not only me inside of it, but a whole community of friends.

I turned the corner to the break room. There they were. Scott and my son were sharing another communal table. Scott ate his dinner, offering my son a spoon and a pint of ice cream. “Try it,” he encouraged. My son removed the lid and dug inside. His little boys’ eyes lit with pleasure as the chocolate melted in his mouth. “Do you like it?” Scott asked him. “This? This ice cream? I love it!” my son answered. Scott stirred at his plate, “It’s for you,” he said. “For me?!” my son, excited, gathered it up. Scott stood as we prepared to go. I wrapped my arms around him.

“You know, when we first came here we did not come to stay. We found this community cold and unwelcoming. For the first six months or longer, no one even looked at us. I cried everyday. But I just realized, as I was walking here, that after four and a half years we have built community. Thank you for being a friend and a brother. Thank you for being a part of our family.” We hugged, there at the mouth of the break room, then turned for home, riding the slow and easy currents of color that come at the end of a well-lived day.

Exhausted. Overcome. In my depletion, restored. Behind my eyes, from the peace of my bed, I watched the colors of my memories flow. The sound of water from my neighbor’s fountain trickled through me in the dark. What began with a few plates of food shared from a Queersgiving potluck had grown into a family gathered at a table of sisterhood, of brotherhood, of community. And there, at the table, being a part of it all, was me.

Through Radical Love, there is room for everyone at the table. By favor of Allah, there is even room for me.

“The companion who is the best to Allah is the one who is best to his companion. And the neighbor that is the best to Allah is the one that is best to his neighbor.” [Tirmidhi]

Slipstream

Isaiah 58: 9-12

9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will
answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say,
here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking
of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched
place,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water
whose waters never fail.
12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt,
you shall raise of the foundations of
many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the
breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.

The pain of this world can be suffocating. The enormity of the problems we face in our world, and in our own lives, can paralyze. I’m not known for my stoicism. Instead, I tend to fall apart. Of my own power, I am emotionally vulnerable, frail and chronically overwrought. Change is upending. Worry is constant. Life is a crisis in the midst of an emergency and Doom peers around the corners, smacking his lips at my impending demise. My daily survival is dependent upon an astonishing, humbling and complex network of support without which Doom would have long ago snatched me by the ankle and dragged me into his cavernous, grinding mouth. My life is a miracle, constantly unfolding, a step by trembling step journey of heart-born, hard-won faith that is, itself, an act of faith.

So, Saturday morning, when I got the text saying Shawn was sick and would not be coming, Shawn who has the tables, the silverware, the plates and the bowls, Shawn who was bringing sandwiches and bottled water, Shawn who is there every Saturday to help set-up and serve and fellowship, Shawn was not coming. It was time to fall apart.

I was still in bed. I braced my mental hands against my mental walls and waited for the shaking to begin, the earthquake that starts at the pit of the stomach and rattles my skeleton like a summoning chime at the gate of Doom’s blood-filled jaws. My vision swirled. A feature of my panic is overwhelming dizziness that drops me to the ground where I stand. Luckily, I was still laying down. I gripped the edge of the mattress against the swirl in my head and thought, “I better call Mother Kathleen.”

Then another feature of my anxiety rose up. The prickling claws of self Doubt came crawling stealthily up my nerves, clattering his needle-like teeth as he crept. No decision seemed right. My judgement was not to be trusted. Doubt, having crept up to my core, rose above me and opened up his heavy sack. A rain of questioned thoughts came down, hit the lip of my swirl of panic, and went round tornado-style raking out a hollow pit inside of me that immediately filled with the tidal sweep of sick. I was Sick.

Sick. The broad-shoulder, bashing beast that presses my chest like a heart attack. Sick. Who comes through the door without knocking, punches through without turning the knob, a dark wall with a featureless face that swallows all light and all vision. Sick. He pressed through my door and lay his suffocating weight down on me like a blanket. The back of me pressed down, down. I held my breath like a swimmer heading for deep water and closed my eyes.

Then the miracle happened. Something behind me opened and I fell in. The water all around me shifted and I breathed it into me, filling with something utterly foreign, a fairy tale thing told about in story books, something made of glittering pixie dust that dances in the sparkle of sunlight. Peace. Peace came and opened some secret door. Under a leaf, behind a knothole, obscured by a shadow was the threshold to the magical place of God’s slipstream. I entered, and became an observer of miracles to come.

I could tell you about the texts and emails and all the things that brought together all the people and all the food which ended up on plates and all of the tables that ended up underneath it, but I was more of a distant observer in all of that. In the slipstream, I flowed along. Like rafting a shaded, lazy river from my place of Peace, in the slipstream, I watched the world roll by. Arms came. They wrapped around me. The voices of friends. Busy hands shifted around bowls full of color. All around, through the breaks in the trees, glittered eyes and smiles and the faces of friends. Like so many times before, once the meal began my purpose was clear and a sanctuary of an hour was swept clean and filled with the fellowship of love and health and community. I was home.

Sitting near the table, slumped on the curb, was a young man I had not seen for months. I fluttered through the pages of my memories for his face. I remembered. He was the odd young man I had given an ice cream cone back in the days when we still served such things. It was right after the Love Overwhelming shelter had closed. We had been bringing food to the courtyard to support the displaced people who had been further displaced by the shelter’s close. This young man had been there.

He was engaged, that day, in the oddest kind of dance. His body rigid, he swirled. Pointing, high stepping, freezing in place, his face would grimace, his eyes lock, and his mouth fall open to the sky or ground. I had never seen anything like it. I wasn’t sure what to do. I was making sandwiches on a bench and dishing up ice cream. He was there. He was probably hungry.

My son had the answer. “I’ll go ask him if he wants a sandwich!” Let’s wait, I advised, until there is a sandwich. I didn’t want this young man, who was obviously very lightly linked to this plane, to hear “sandwich” and expect one to be there right at that moment only then to find it absent. “I’ll make a sandwich first, then we will ask.”

He accepted my sandwich. He accepted my ice cream; and, each, in turn, joined him in his dance. And, each, in turn, was neatly and purposefully and astoundingly eaten in spite of his deep engagement in a world I could not see. And from that world, as I handed him each, had come a polite, grateful, and clearly spoken, “Thank you.”

After months of absence, here he was. He was still, staring at the ground, and I recognized the distant look in his eyes. I didn’t imagine he was going to be lining up for food. I stooped next to him.

“Hi,” I smiled, “I remember you. It’s been a long time. Remind me of your name?”

His face rose and he met my eyes. There was a flash of clarity, of connectedness as he said, “Arthur,” then turning his head to the side, he dissolved into laughter. I waited a minute then asked, “Are you hungry? Would you like me to get you something to eat?” His response was a thunder roll of laughs with knee slaps clapping like lightning in between. He was gone in a world I could not see. I paused for a moment, listening to his laughing, watching as he retreated to a place outside of this place. I would hand him a bowl of stew. Maybe he would eat it.

He did. Like with the sandwiches, he received my gift though a moment of clarity. A mental hand brushed the curtain from in front of his eyes and he peered out from behind it, out of his private world, and looked at me. “Thank you.”

As he ate his stew, I made him a plate. I felt a frantic rush to prepare it. This young man, from some magical place, could magically vanish like a sprite. Now you see him, now you don’t. This fairy tale man in his fairy tale mind might be a flicker in the corner of my eye, a laugh that comes from behind a shimmering leaf, a was-it-really-there wonder that sometimes appears in the moss and the mushrooms at the base of a tree, just for a moment, before it is lost again into the world of imagination. I wanted to be sure to feed him before he was gone.

I returned to him with a plate of food and a bag of snacks. Watching him, it was hard to tell what he could see and what he couldn’t. He recognized a boiled egg. He ate it with only half the shell removed. I showed him the salt and pepper packets. He laughed as he chewed on the shells. I peeled the other egg for him and salted it, then put a few more in his bag.

“Look!” I said, “Snap peas! Do you know what these are? Would you like to try one?” The curtain parted, “No.” I reached in his snack bag for some cherry tomatoes. “Look!” I said, “Cherry tomatoes! Would you like to have one?” From behind a fluttering curtain, “No.” I wasn’t sure he was aware of what I was holding. “Taste one,” I offered. “Then decide.”

I held the tomato to his mouth and he took it. His mouth chewed. His face remained flat. His eyes were gone. I couldn’t tell what was happening behind them. Finally, I asked, “How does it taste?” and from the distant, mossy place in which this magical man was dwelling he boomed, “DELICIOUS!!”

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. I had tended this young man through his meal, offering treats and encouraging. Here we stood, a bag of cherry tomatoes between us, and his delighted face sparkling around the lost world in his eyes. We laughed together, for the first time that day, and he reached for the bag. His eyes, eyes blind to this world, danced. His mouth chewed and smiled. Curtain after curtain was brushed aside. In that moment, we stood in community. It was a community of shared vitality, of flavor, of patient compassion, of friendship. I turned to glance at my son, and when I turned back the magic man had vanished. He had returned to his Neverland home behind the shimmering shadows of leaves.

Food was served. Food was gathered. I asked each pot to be placed here and there in my overcrowded car. When I return the leftovers and pots to the church after each meal share, my course takes me past the Civic Circle. Often, hungry friends who couldn’t make it across the bridge are there. I like to have the pots arranged to make it easy to serve a few meals out of the car on our way back to the church.

As the pots were disappearing into my car, my friend, Daniel came up to me. One hand was on his cane, the other was held in front of me in a closed, downward fist. His slow, whispered speech dragged out at a pace much slower than the anxious joy that skittered forward from his eyes. “For you…” he said, placing an object in my hand. I looked. A crystal glittered in my palm, radiating power and warmth. I looked up at him, “Daniel, thank you,” and swept him into my embrace.

There we stood. Pressed. Entwined. The shuffle of pots, the sounds of the birds, the flutter of light on my closed eyelids twinkled all around while Daniel and I rode the slipstream. Swept along, together, swept along, communing, swept along, riding the current in the palm of God’s mighty hand. I clutched his gift. “This is just what I needed today,” I told him. “I love you,” Daniel rasped. The warmth of his chest against my cheek was a sanctuary of comfort. “I love you, too, Daniel.”

As quickly as we gathered, we parted. An hour of time with a world inside of it bound by no clock or time had ended. Our magic door closed, and the world returned. But my son and I were in the slipstream. We dropped from one magic plane into another and headed for the circle.

Friends. Right away, I found a man I knew. He was always happy to see us, always grateful. As I filled his plate his face twinkled with delight. “Some salad?” I asked him, “It has barley and beans!” “YEAH!” his enthusiastic reply. “Some kale? It has beans and sweet potatoes and onions!” “YEAH!!!” and his enthusiasm grew. It was a series of grateful “yeahs” framed in happy laughter and off our friend went to enjoy his meal.

Around the corner, another friend, and another happy plate shared. We were almost done. A young man I knew approached and we sent him on his way with his share of our bounty. As he crossed the park, I saw him sit with two more people I was sure I hadn’t met. Moving the car forward, I got out to see if they also might want a meal. One of the new friends was a young man, with dark bristled hair. The other was an older man, big and broad, with a giant green hiker’s backpack resting at his feet. They were in conversation as I approached so I sat, without speaking, and waited for the chance to make my offer.

After a few moments, I interjected. Addressing the two new friends, I said, “I have some more stew like what Ray is eating. And some salad and zucchini lasagna and greens. We also have some snacks, boiled eggs and snap peas. Would you like something to eat? It’s really delicious. And it’s good for you.”

The younger man looked at me, both amused and confused. “Who are you?” he laughed, “Where did you come from?” Now it was I who had appeared through a magical door. The slipstream was flowing from my world of community and abundance into this lost place of the forgotten, tucked away in the thick of the circle’s trees. I was spinning, gently turning, in the currents of the slip stream. The clear day was gold and green, with the cool grey of the concrete beneath me running through it. Without time, in this moment alive, I learned the faces of the two men in front of me. I unbent my shoulders and showed them my shirt.

“This is me. We serve two meals a week to our neighbors who are homeless. You should have some. I have to say, my cooking is delicious. And we only serve, fresh, healthy food. Take a look.” I pulled one of my postcard maps with the group description on the other side out of my bag and handed it to the younger man. To the older man I handed my phone displaying a picture of the last Wednesday meal. “This is the kind of food we like to serve,” I told them. “Food that lifts and nourishes people.”

The older man stared at the picture on my phone as the young man started to read my card. Still laughing nervously, he started to read out loud in a mocking tone, “Radical Love nourishes the bodies, minds & spirits of our neighbors who struggle under the burden of homelessness. We seek to help them overcome the nutritional deficits that lead to…” He stopped reading out loud, but kept reading. His sardonic grin dissolved as he continued. When he got to the end, he looked up.

“Is this for real? Are you for real? What is this?” The face of the older man was shining. I got up and sat next to him on the bench. “It’s Radical Love,” I said. “There is enough. There is enough for people to share of their abundance, not just give what is leftover. People need healthy food. They are sick. They need good care.” The older man’s face was locked into an amazed and joyful smile.

“YES!” he said, “YES! We matter! Each one of us matters! Each one of us is a unique and beautiful creation, none like the other!”

“YES!” I came back. “That is my point! That is why Radical Love. That is why healthy food. This is nutrient dense meals. This is food education. And this food asks a question: Who are these people who deserve this better thing? And the answer is not the same as when you ask: What do I do with my leftovers.”

“YES!” my new friend cried, and reached for my arm. Our eyes traveled into one another, locked in understanding. “Come have some,” I invited, and they followed me to my car.

At the car, the younger man could not stop laughing. He could not stop exclaiming. “WOW! This IS for real! Look at that! Look at THAT!” I handed him several bags of snap peas and a few boiled eggs. He looked me squarely in the eye. “This is great. I mean, this is really wonderful. I just can’t believe it. I can’t believe you are doing this. Thank you, so much.” I hugged the young man. In his arms, none of his doubt or darkness remained. We rode the slipstream, one mind, one idea, on the same plane.

I dished up some of the Portuguese stew that had been served on Wednesday. I held it up to the older man and invited him to smell it. His already open face brightened with delight as he fell into the slipstream. He stood, tall and broad, there at the curb. On his back, was the giant hiker’s pack stuffed tight with the contents of his nomadic life. His mouth came open in a smile and his eyes turned up to God. “Wow…” he said, as I sat it down, “Wow…”

He turned to me, still smiling, and started to move. In the momentum of the slipstream, he leaned. His broad body loomed above me, his butter yellow shirt swallowing my field of vision as he came. I felt the weight of his pack in my mind as his body came toward me, leaning into the flow of the slipstream as he came. My heart rose and thumped, wondering if we would end up on the ground, as his arms circled me round.

And we did not fall. Instead, a deep tenderness rose up all around and we stood. He held me, tenderly, and I pressed myself into his arms. From above, into the top of my head, he whispered, “….thank you ….thank you ….thank you.” From my peace, from my abundance, from the cradle of God’s grace in the slipstream I whispered it back. “Thank you.”

It was with remarkable Grace that I traveled that day. The miracle of the slipstream and its peace had astounded me. I wondered if this was some breakthrough, some change to my own mental frailty, a persistent miracle that was the beginning of a new phase of life.

It wasn’t. The next day, when I stepped out of my door, I did not go into the slipstream. Doom and Sick and Doubt draped their heavy arms around me pushing and scratching at my unsteady edges, once again. I would spend as much of the day as possible in retreat, nursing my own dark magic and reaching out for Grace and Peace. It is a battle fought by the soldiers of light and dark within me, all born from the violently torn cracks and way places that make up the terrain of my own mind.

But within that shadowy place there is always The Voice. It is The Voice that travels with me, and is my guide. It is The Voice that whispers recipes and ideas and plans. It opens the slipstream door in those great moments of mercy and gently pulls me in. The Voice teaches compassion, and explains complexity with empathy, love and an open heart. And it gives me patience for brokenness, including my own.

Psalm 45: 1-13, translated and adapted by Nan C. Merrill in Psalm For Praying

Your Divine Presence endures forever
and ever.
Your sovereign edict is ordained
with justice;
your love is unconditional,
without reserve.
Therefore, O Creator, O Heart of Love,
anoint us with
the oil of gladness to share
with all;
your raiment is as fragrant
blossoms,
healing herbs of kindness.
From every directions stringed instruments
will gladden our hearts;
our friends will be filled
with integrity,
standing beside us in times of need.

Hear, O peoples, consider, and
incline your ear;
forget what has gone before you;
turn your feet to the path of Love.
Open your hearts to the Beloved,
learn of humility, be blessed
in brokenness,
For these are the treasures stored
in eternity.

Radical Love, The Evolution, Part 2

Ezekiel 34:11-16 For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

The next day came, but I was not present in it. I was still living in that one cold night. I was living in the arms of the man in the wheelchair. I was living in the eyes of the man on the ground. My heart was running through the cold, going face to face. The couple in the alley. The young woman, lost and delusional, wrapped in blankets and tucked into a store front. The bearded man in the church doorway. The skate kids outside of the shelter that had no more room that night. The mother with three young children. I told a few people what had happened. Moved by my stories, they gave me money. They said, “Do it again”.

The fire of that frozen evening was burning inside of me. I packed the church’s largest pot with chickens and made chicken and dumplings with carrots, peas and onions. I would take it to the local low barrier shelter, Love Overwhelming. The shelter was a center of controversy and some were fighting to shut it down. There was opposition to their policy of accepting people who were not sober. Drugs and alcohol were not permitted on premises, but one didn’t have to be sober to have a warm place on the floor. Neighbors complained of needles found on their property, of human waste found in their yards. I lived only a few blocks from the shelter. Though I did see people who were homeless walking on my street I had never been negatively effected by the their presence in my neighborhood nor by the shelter. To me, they were neighbors, like any neighbors. They were hurting neighbors. Hungry neighbors. Neighbors who needed my help. Tonight, I would bring them chicken and dumplings.

On my way out of the door, a friend from church handed me a grocery sack full of loose candy. “Candy,” I thought, “There is nothing nutritious or filling about candy.” But I took it, and my pot, and headed for Love Overwhelming.

As we approached the shelter I saw the line of people waiting at the door. It was almost eight o’clock, the time when the shelter opened its doors for the evening. People were lined up, waiting to check in. Heaps of backpacks and blankets punctuated the line. Mounded figures mixed among the standing shifted and some of the blankets came to life. I opened my trunk and a man who would come to be my friend approached me. “Do you need any help?” he asked. I did. The pot of chicken and dumplings was huge. I wasn’t able to lift it. I looked up, way way up, into the gentle face above me.

His cheeks were red from the cold, his blue eyes placid and kind. He smiled at me and, instantly, I felt welcomed. “Yes!” I told him, “This pot is heavy!” He lifted it with ease. My son, carrying the candy, leapt from the car. His joy burst out into the frozen parking lot. It sent out waves like a beacon, so powerful they were almost shining. “I’ll give them the candy!” he cried, and ran ahead.

My plan was to leave the pot, and the candy, and come back for the pot the next day. You may or you may not get your pot back, I was told. That was St. Stephen’s biggest pot. A good pot. I couldn’t risk not getting it back. I would have to stay and serve the chicken and dumplings myself, then take the pot with me. With my new, tall friend as escort, we moved through the halls of Love Overwhelming, taking our pot to the kitchen.

The halls were scattered with people who had already been checked in. One was headed for the shower. Others were waiting. My son, leaping with excitement behind me, was giving them candy. The worn carpets and empty, beige walls began to flicker, just a little, as his light rebounded off of them. “Have some CANDY!” he cried out, pressing past my side. Then a whispered, “Mama, can I have one…?” and my crisp, “Only one!” as he shot ahead of me down the hall.

My friend put my pot on the counter and showed me to some bowls. We were lucky that night. There were bowls. And spoons. We would come to learn that bowls, spoons, cups, — and food — were all commodities here, and in short supply. The things one would assume are available in a shelter weren’t always there. Resources for those in need are scarce. When it comes to taking care of the most vulnerable among us, it is often left to kind hearts to provide. The kitchen had no stove top, but one corner cabinet was packed with pasta, rice and dry beans that could not be cooked. The hungriest with food they could eat. Those with the least offered the least of all. It is a world upside down.

That night, we were bowl rich, so I took the lid from the pot and reached for the ladle. In the room adjoining the kitchen, the floor along the walls was lined with blankets, bins, backpacks and sleeping bags. Those who had already checked in, and those with day services, already had their sleeping areas made up along the floor. A man in a wheelchair, a new face, raced up to me. His smile was wide and open, framed by his white beard. His eyes glittered joyfully under the bill of his cap. “Hi!” he cried out, “What can I do to help?!” His friendliness and openness immediately reached me. What could he do, low down in his chair, the pot so high on the counter top? It was the church’s biggest pot. The rim of it reached up even higher, even further out of his reach. Later, he would help me, though. As he was helping me now. His welcoming face and kind way made a place for me in his place. His openness led me forward, making me ready to serve. Later, he would insist on washing the pot for me and carrying to my car. With that same joyful enthusiasm, he would race through the cold with the pot on his lap and thank me so much for the meal. He would rave about the dumplings. He would become my friend.

While I dished up dinner, my son twinkled like Christmas as he raced around the room. Everyone got candy. Everyone was reached by his joy. He turned the solemn space into a holiday with the joy of his giving. Like a wave, the room rippled with smiles, with laughter, as he gave. The people were delighted with his presence. Out of my sight in the growing crowd of people, I could pinpoint him by the spots of laughter that rose up around the room. His candy giving would become a feature of our visits to the shelter. His Candy Ministry. He would come to make a game of it, hiding candy in people’s backpacks, in their bedding, in their shoes. He threw handfuls into open doors, tinkling explosions of flavor and color. Through his loving joyfulness, and through my pots of rich, hearty food, we would develop many relationships. We would get to know people. We would learn.

We spent months of Wednesdays at Love Overwhelming. I brought pot after pot of delicious food. Friends were helping me cook on Wednesdays now as it was too much for me to do alone. I am no workhorse. The pain in my body stops me from doing all my heart and mind want to do. After a short time of chopping my hand can no longer grip firmly on the knife and I end up with cuts. Large pots of food are very difficult for me to stir. But the stories of the people I was meeting moved others to help. People gave money, time, groceries, and the pots of food kept coming.

My decades of cooking for my own hungry pleasures came to bear on this work. I made Lebanese food, Spanish food, food from Turkey and Poland. We had Indian cuisine, Moroccan delights, Greek casseroles and salads. I had been warned that people might not like all of these unusual flavors, but our friends at Love Overwhelming sprang to life when they saw us coming. They loved my food. It drew out stories from their own lives. One owned a greek restaurant. Another had been a baker. The flavorful food, full of meat and vegetables, gave them something to look forward to. It became a reason to be excited. “We wish you could come everyday!” they told me. So did I. But I could barely do this one meal a week, even with all of the help. So, we all looked forward to Wednesdays when we would come together, again, over another flavorful pot of food.

Some did look into my pot and balk. Green. “I don’t like vegetables,” they told me. I would fill a spoon, lift it, and say, “Close your eyes. Don’t look at it. Just take one bite. You can spit it out if you don’t like it.” I don’t remember anyone ever spitting. Instead, people’s tastes began to change. Fresh vegetables covered with delicious spices are hard to resist. Before long, I stopped hearing, “I don’t like vegetables” and everyone just looked forward to our next healthful meal.

Only there was still the candy. Which is not so healthful. And, really, I didn’t think much about it. My son loved giving it. People loved his games. He made people happy and candy is tasty. But the more I came, the more I talked to people. The more I got to know these people, the more I realized just how sick many of them were.

There was, and still is, a lot of misunderstanding about who it actually was staying in that shelter. Those who fought to close it tended to charaterize my friends as lazy drug addicts who needed to pull it together and get a job. In truth, many of those in the shelter already had income. They were disabled. They are the most fragile, most vulnerable in our community. I had learned that, even get a spot on the floor in Love Overwhelming, one had to go through an intake process that involved an assessment of vulnerability. Each individual had their fralities listed, and if it added up to enough, they were added to the list of those to whom the shelter was available. I thought of them as “owie points”. One had to have enough “owie points” to be assessed vulnerable enough to be admitted. The shelter had a maximum capacity of around sixty, but there are many many more people without homes than that in Cowlitz County. Only the most frail got a spot on the floor. And even of the most frail, only sixty could get inside each night. The rest had to make it out in the cold.

Then the shelter closed. One sickening Wednesday night in February, we brought the last pot of food we would serve at Love Overwhelming. Some people cried out, “Erika’s Last Supper!” but I promised them it would not be. We would bring food every Wednesday. We would eat outside.

We did. We met in the rain, under tents provided by C-HOPE, and held our bowls as we stood. Others in the community joined us to help serve our friends. Each week, as my friends showed up, I embraced each with such gratitude. My heart broke to know they were scattered, no dry place to rest, not even a hard floor under a roof. I felt such relief as I saw familiar faces coming to share a meal. For each one who did not come, I worried.

At the same time the shelter closed, the group who had been serving a Saturday meal in the County Administration courtyard suddenly stopped. I couldn’t bear the thought of another blow to our friends. Quickly, we came together with other caring people in our community, and began to provide a Saturday potluck. With more help in the kitchen, we made our Wednesday pot a little larger. Leftovers were saved for Saturday and others brought food to add to the meal. Now, we were serving our friends twice a week. We had two opportunities to provide them with a nutritious, delicious meal.

Now, out in the cold, the fragile became even more so. They shared with me what they were going through. Congestive heart failure, epilespy, kidney disease, diabetes. My friends didn’t need candy. They didn’t need kool-aid. My friends needed solid nutrition to help survive out in the streets. One friend told me his blood sugar was over 350. He showed me his feet. What had I been doing, bringing this man candy? If we really wanted to care for our friends we had to change. It was time for change.

A few months later, Reverend Vonda would bless us with an indoor space where we could share our meals. Along with the new space, the knowledge of our friends’ delicate health growing, the idea of Radical Love began to emerge. What began as a pot of flavorful food with enough meat in it had become something more. An awareness of the compromised health of many of our guests led us to do away with candy and sweet drinks. Eventually, it led us to do away with all sugar, sweets, junk food, white rice, pasta and white flour. More and more people were hearing about this ministry and supporting us. If we were going to invest their dollars in food, we would invest it in the kind of food that would help to lift our friends’ health. Sweets are available in abundance from food banks and other sources. There is a long tradition of giving day old bread, cakes, muffins, cookies, and pastries to the poor. Our friends didn’t need to receive any more of that from us. What they needed was real, solid nutrition. We now had two opportunities each week to give them just that.

What began as a pot of something delicious with enough meat in each bite has become something more. Radical Love has a trifold mission. We provide nutrient dense, healthful, meals twice a week. We help our friends learn to love nutritious food by making it available and delicious. And, by feeding our friends well, we ask a question: Who are these people who deserve this better food?

I will tell you who they are. They are mothers. They are fathers. They are sisters and brothers and cousins and aunts. They are bakers, mechanics, nurses, and chefs. They are disabled, they are vulnerable, they are forgotten. They are mischaraterized, mislabled and misunderstood. They are thrown away. They are slandered. They are blamed. They are ghosts. They move amongst us invisible and unseen, except when they are pointed to with fingers of shame and blame. And they need us. They need us to see them. They need us to put our arms around them. They need us to bring them into community and give them a chance to live amongst us, again.

These people are us. They are ours. We are one world, one community, one human family. We belong to one another. We are responsible for one another. And each and every one of us deserves to eat and to live with dignity, health and respect. This is Radical Love. And we are just beginning.

Psalm 86: 1-7, Translated and adapted by Nan C. Merrill in Psalm for Praying

Give ear to my cry, Eternal Word,
and answer me,
for I am in need of You.
Awaken new life in me, as I yearn
to do your will;
dispel the ignorance of my ways,
as I put my trust in You,
You are the Beloved; be gracious to me,
Heart of my heart,
for with You would I walk all day.
My soul uplifted, as I abandon
myself into your hands.
For You are kind and forgiving,
abounding in steadfast love to all
who call upon You,
Give ear to my prayer, Compassionate One;
listen to my heartfelt pleas.
In the time of trouble, I dare to
call upon You
for You hear the cry of those
in need.</e

Radical Love, The Evolution Part I

2 Corinthians 9:10-11 10 Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.

One cold night, last November, my son and I drove through the dark to the Queersgiving potluck. I am nervous on the road so seldom go out after dark, but it was a party. I wanted to support the event and my son, Mr. Social, was ready for fun. I avoided the main roads, and therefore most of the traffic, heading toward main street. It was almost six o’clock, so I knew it would be empty of both people and traffic. The road in front of me shone warm with the yellow white glow of the Christmas lights in the trees. The chill in the air lent itself to the spirit of the holidays, decorations sparkling in the darkened store windows. We were going to a party. I coaxed myself in the direction of cheer.

The street was silent. The stores were all closed. Few cars passed me and no shoppers walked the tree-lined walks. Then, I saw something out of place. In the shadow of a doorway something moved. A person. A layer of my party spirit fell away. A few more store fronts down, two more bundled shapes moved in the shadows. Peppered along this street were people, huddled in doorways, fighting a losing battle against the cold. It was near freezing. Dark. I was on my way to a party. Block after block, I saw the bundled bodies of people who were not going to be eating Thanksgiving dinner that night. My already reluctant cheerfulness fell away in hunks as I saw one person after another pressed into the cold stone of the darkened shops.

Near our destination, I saw a few more people. One man was in a wheelchair. My cheerfulness gone, I burst into tears. There would be no Queersgiving holiday spirit for me. Every speck of my awareness was pulled into the black hole of homelessness, the shadowed and unseen place where people live out of sight of those who have reason to celebrate. My scattered being, tittering fragments cast about by anxiety, were savagely drawn down into one, dark, heavy fist of grief.

Inside, the room was full of joyful voices. The buffet table was covered from end to end with a kaleidoscope of colored dishes full of food made for friends. In my mind, I scooped from dish after dish, filing plates for the people outside. The event’s coordinator, Megan, was personing an information table. On the table were hats and scarves she had knitted for our homeless neighbors. I pulled her aside.

“There are some people right around the corner, homeless people,” my eyes were brimming with tears. “Towards the end of the dinner, would it be ok to fix some plates to take around the corner?” Of course, Megan said yes. I found a place to sit down and tried to join the party. Instead, I grabbed everyone who passed near me and told them, through my tears, that there were people around the corner who were hungry and cold. I recruited a few helpers to carry plates and then counted the minutes until it was time to help myself to the leftovers.

As the party goers nibbled their desserts, I packed the plates. We made five. I put as much meat on each one as I could, picking desperately at the turkey carcass on the buffet. Meat is not something one often gets when homeless, especially not delicious roasted turkey. I selected the richest, most delicious foods still available, then headed for the door. Rolls and cupcakes teetered atop the mounded plates, my helpers struggling to hold all the food in place. My son hurried ahead with napkins and plastic wear, anxious to minister to new friends.

Around the corner, our extended gifts were met with gratitude and surprise. A nervous shuffle of cups and plates and soon each person in the alcove had a meal. I needed to get my child out of the cold. We needed to go back to the party. But standing there on the sidewalk, it felt unfinished. I wasn’t ready to walk away. The man in the wheelchair was gushing, thanking us again and again for the food. His energy grew in me like a crackling flame and I felt my body moving towards him.

In a moment, my arms were around him. I bent in the cold, drawing him into me as much as I could as he sat in his chair. His arms flew out and pressed into me powerfully. “OH!! OH!!!” he cried out, “THANK you! THANK you!! OH!!”

Suddenly, there was no cold. There were no plates. There was only the man in my arms, and me in his. There was no party. No street. Only his arms and his voice as he relished this human contact, something more rare and precious to him even than the turkey I had so carefully harvested. We held each other there, new residents of our private island, insulated against cold, against invisibility, against indifference. Walls around us trembled and fell as a citizenship in a new community was born. Finally, he held me at arms length and looked at me deeply. “Thank you…”, he said, again. My whole evening came to rest in his eyes. In those moments, I had attended my Thanksgiving party.

The following week, temperatures took a dive. The thermometer was expected to hit low 20s at night. The man in the wheelchair was burned into my mind. Talk of the shelter closing was heavy. I couldn’t stop crying. Tearful conversations were the only kind I had as I told person after person what had happened Queersgiving night. “What can we do?” I asked each one. “How can we help?” But the problem of homelessness is a complicated, many tendrilled creature for which there are no easy solutions. No one had answers. I continued to cry.

Then came the weather report. The first official night near twenty would be on Tuesday. Darkness descended as Tuesday approached. I felt insane with anxiety and sadness. I was desperate to do something. I had put aside a little money for Christmas foods for our home. I asked my son what we really needed for special food for Christmas. Would it be ok to just eat what we always did, and spend this money on a pot of chili? My son, passionate activist and minister to so many, my angel on earth, leapt up, “YES!” Still crying, I headed for the door.

Tuesday night, we hit the streets. A pot of chili, complete with cheese and sour cream to top it, sourdough bread, gingersnaps and fifty pairs of hand warmers donated by friends were in the trunk. My friend, Leslie, came along to be my eyes and emotional support. I drove slowly up and down streets while she looked for shapes in doorways. When we found someone we would leap out, prepare a meal, and hand off the steaming container to our new friend. My son, bursting with ardent love, flew ahead with napkins and cookies. The energy in us rose with each stop as we felt the Spirit lead us on.

As soon as we hit main street, I saw my friend in the chair. I parked and sprung from the car. “It’s YOU!” he cried out, “YOU! You are an angel! Ever since I met you last week I have been filled with the love of God. Filled with the Holy Spirit!” I threw my arms around him and held on. It was like finding an old friend. We laughed and hugged out in the painfully crisp night. Quickly, I gave him two pairs of hand warmers. Quickly, I served up two heaping cups of chili, topping it with cheese and sour cream. My new friend’s head lolled with pleasure as he took in the smell. It was still very hot, burning hot, and he held it close against his chest. As I fed him out there in the dark, he fed me through his eyes. I knew I had done the right thing by going out that night. How, I wondered, would I manage to do it, again?

The night was a whirlwind. In short order, my ladle was clanking against the bottom of my pot. Every ladle full was a sacrament, every embrace a prayer. I had met so many people. My head swirled with names and faces as I turned the car towards home. There was one more spot we would check. A tucked away place against an empty building in my neighborhood often sheltered someone. We had just enough to serve one more, if someone was there.

I parked near the corner of the empty building. I asked my friend, Leslie, to check the spot for me while I waited with my son in the car. She was back in a moment with her report. “There is someone there, but they are completely covered up and not moving. I didn’t want to bother them.”

It didn’t feel right to me. There was food in the pot. Just enough. I would serve just one more meal. I pushed myself out into the bitter dark and prepared that one last portion. As I approached, I saw the shape. Deep in a sleeping bag on a pile of insulating trash an unmoving figure lay. I put the food and hand warmers on a nearby ledge and bent low. In a quiet voice I said, “I’ve brought you some food. It’s still warm. If you can hear me, you might want to eat it before it gets cold. There are some hand warmers, too…”

The figure shifted. I paused. As they moved, I realized their back was facing me. A corner of the sleeping bag lifted as the emerging head below turned.

His eyes met mine. My breath froze in my lungs when I saw him. His brilliant eyes shone in a face set like a jewel against the green of the sleeping bag resting in the trash. His face spread with a radiant smile. “Thank you,” he told me, and I was unable to move. My throat closed around tears as I stared. He was glowing. His radiance shone all around his placid face, a halo of peace and love. “Thank you…” he said again. The air around us was pulled into that spot. The world rested, just for a moment, in the sea of his eyes. His cheeks were peach, like a child, framed in the curly brown of his beard. I couldn’t look away. Tears broke the edges of my eyes, leaving cold streaks along the heat of my cheeks. “You’re welcome,” I said. “I love you…” I said; and I turned toward my car, toward my mission, as I carried with me the face of God.

Hands

Isaiah 41:13 For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.

Radical Love requires many hands. Our Wednesday meal has an oscillating crew of about 10 to 12 people. Between preparing the meal, delivering the meal, serving the meal and cleaning up after it takes a lot of help. This Wednesday, the crew was oscillating wildly. By early afternoon, seven of those who contribute regularly had cancelled.

Without help, there is no meal. I felt the bottom spiraling towards me. There is a constant building knot of panic that grows inside of me along with this ministry. It is an endless tug of war. Mine are only two of the many hands it takes to carry out this mission, the hands of love tightly gripping a rope while something in the darkness keeps a snarling grip on the other end. If the many hands let go, I can’t hold on. I can’t keep up with this ministry as it blasts forward, seemingly under it’s own power. This was a pot of chili delivered out of my trunk. Actually, as Mother Kathleen reminded me, it was a few plates of food from the Queersgiving potluck last November, delivered around the corner after I discovered a clutch of homeless people stiff with hunger and cold. It was never meant to be an inside, sit down dinner. It was never meant to be a Saturday potluck. This ministry has grown of its own accord. As each new hand touches it, a tendril sprouts from the stem. The life in it is all of these lives, brought together with a passion for those we serve. The blood that circulates through its heart is the blood of all of those who touch it. Without them, it has no life. Seven cancelled. Panic pressed down on me, the something in the darkness speaking. “Alright”, growled the hand on the other end of the rope, “You’ll stop right here.”

However, The Creator doesn’t work that way. Like new shoots pressing through warm soil, the kitchen filled with hands. Right on time, the sea of color spread across the kitchen island split in to morsels of love and life. Onions simmered. Voices mingled. Rainbows flowed from hands to bowls and burst up in the warmth of fragrance in the garden that we grew. My Loving God hummed a soft kitchen song as the divinely planned meal came together.

With more loving, last minute hands, the meal was delivered. Already, several of my friends were waiting outside. Eagerly, they came to me. One of my friends, John, stepped forward to help. “You’ve got MY hands!” he beamed. My heart pressed up and flowed over at his words. I laughed out loud and cried, “I know I do! John, it’s so wonderful to see you! Let me do this, first!” and I stopped in that moment and took one sideways step. I pressed my elbow through the crack in my curtain of panic and slipped into the arms of my friend.

Every time I give one of my friends a hug I remember that this may be the only hug they get until I see them again. Living outside is very lonely. One doesn’t just live in the physical outside. One lives outside of community, pushed to the edges of invisible, abandoned, rejected, mislabled and misunderstood. My friends often go without deep human contact or human touch for very long periods of time. When I put my arms around my friends I want to make up for that. I pressed my cheek against John’s chest and held on. His arms around me returned my embrace. I spread my fingers across his back and shoulders and pressed into him, willing the love I felt to flow, letting his spirit into me to feel our oneness in God. I stood, a trembling tender shoot wilted; the roots of my fingers drank and I was filled. We replenished each other, then turned to the work. Soon, a flow of hands went back and forth from the kitchen to the cars filled with food. A meal took shape in front of us, and I stopped in front of the pots to look.

I love looking at the food we make together. I love the smells that rise up from the pots. I built that first plate. Rice peppered with edamame, pinto beans, bell peppers and tomatoes steamed. Protein rich cheesy sausage and pasta sat beside it. A mountain of bright salad, topped with delicate purple sage flowers sat shining in the center, and bowl of Puerto Rican fish stew accompanied it, full of cabbage, carrots, kale, onions, green olives, raisins and a deep, rich smell of communal life. The cheesy sausage was a gift from Reverend Vonda, the salad was a gift from the Lower Columbia School Gardens, the sage flowers were cut by the children of CVG elementary, and the fish was caught by my friend’s mother, herself, in the ocean. And more. Tomatoes from Nat, stock from Alison and the financial contributions of many. All of it sat there together, singing out love and community into the light blue room. I looked up into the first pair of eyes and extended our gift.

“This is my friend, Daniel,” Christine told me. Christine had come to every meal since we moved into our indoor location. I put down my plate and walked around the counter, embracing Christine. To Daniel, I began to extend a hand; but, just as i lifted it, his arms began to rise. Christine said, “I told him about the kind lady who makes the amazing food and he wanted to come.” Daniel’s large eyes opened to me. I saw him deeply. He hadn’t just come for the food. She had told him about me. He was here for the love. I stepped into him and scooped him up. “Oh!” I said. “Yes! A hug! Let’s do that!” and I gathered my new friend into the circle of our welcome. He held on, a weary traveler, finally crossing the hem of the village, finally finding his way home. I stepped back a bit, took both of his hands and looked into his eyes. They were the light grey of rain clouds with the sun shining behind, rimmed with graceful dark lashes that curled out like a boy’s. They shone urgently, a flood of unspoken words pouring into me. His speech came slowly, labored and quiet, hard to understand, “It’s so good to be here.”

Quickly, the room filled with friends. Some faces familiar, some new, they settled with their plates and bowls at the table and talked over the meal. When it seemed most had arrived and been served, I came out from behind the counter and walked around. I felt like a maitre’d as I asked each one, “How is your food? How was your meal? Is there anything else you need?” My body ached. My mind was swimming. My heart was still pounding. But the rushing swirl that hurls this ministry forward, the powerful swell that lands again and again at my back, propelled me on. As I went from person to person, soul-lit eyes turned up. The beautiful centers of my garden of flowers shone their light upon me, and the spirit trembling in my aching body swelled. “It’s wonderful,” they told me, and the truth was in their sparkling eyes. One of my friends held his empty bowl in his rough hands, eyes fixed on the bottom. His face was lit and beaming, “There was everything in there,” he nearly whispered, “Everything…”

I made my way around to the other side of the table where my friend, Kathleen slumped, unblinking, in front of her plate. I had noticed her right away when I had come through the door. One of the first to come to our inside dinner, she was a familiar face. That first time, she bustled in joyfully, throwing her arms around me in a jolly burst of friendship. The next time I saw her, she was crumpled in a doorway, unrecognizable. I thought she was an old man, a stranger, until i approached her. As I called out, “Hello, friend!” she had raised her head and I saw her face. I gave her peanut butter sandwiches and tomatoes, that day, from the groceries I had in my car. It was late in the day and she hadn’t eaten. She trembled with hunger as she accepted my gift. The week before she had been too nervous to come into the building. I delivered her food to her in the parking lot where she sat curled low in the gravel, trying to disappear. This week, she wouldn’t meet my eyes. She rocked frantically at the table. I knew she didn’t want to be touched. I stopped a respectful distance from her and said her name, “Kathleen. Do you have everything you need? Do you need more?” She rocked faster, “….no.” I stood, bent, my face parallel to hers. Predators look with forward facing eyes. Showing only one eye is a universal language among biological beings. It means, “I am no threat.” I spoke quietly. “I know you probably don’t want a hug today,” she shook her head rapidly, “but I just want you to know that I love you. And I’m so glad, even though you don’t feel well, that you decided to come here.”

As I made my way around, I gave out the map. It has the places and times of the meals on one side and a description of the ministry on the other. Our focus on nutrient dense food high in protein and vegetables, and the absence of desserts and sugary items is described. I watched people’s faces as they read it. One by one, the eyes would lift, looking for mine as a smile grew across their faces. “I like this…” said one friend, “I really like this.”

My existence in this ministry is that constant tug of war. On one side, panicked anxiety and physical pain; on the other side, the mounting power of the Holy Spirit that rises up like flames from the communal table. I watched the satisfied faces of my guests, listened to their words. They delighted in the flavor, both of the food and of the company. They were moved by the taste and color and care. I listened to the happy chattering sound punctuated with words of pleasure and gratitude. My vision glittered. Through my panic and exhaustion came that rising power, the trembling of Spirit pushing past obstacles, tearing down walls and spilling light into every darkened corner. Electric, alive, every inch of my body was shouting as I drank in the scene in the room. The many hands who had carried us to this place were joined in shared prayer, and the circle opened wider as they reached out to join to our number even more. A woman, brand new to our meals, stood up commandingly, plate in hand, and marched off to the kitchen. Soon, the dishwasher was humming and plates were disappearing into the steam. I trembled in place, alive in my unique manifestation of deeply energized exhaustion, and felt the hands on the rope adding to my weakness their power. In our sanctuary, burned the power of the Holy Spirit. Viseral. Alive.

Carrying some empty pitchers, I headed for my car. The voices of anxiety and panic chattered at me, trying to drive the Spirit back. The doubt and fear and worry, the pain, the confusion of a million voices, all shouted at me at once. Anxiety shouts doom, even in the midst of joy, and it’s heavy footfall raced to push away any good feelings that had grown with this meal. My mind was at war, my muscles screaming, as I made my way down the walk.

Then, I saw Irene. She was one of the first friends I made back when Love Overwhelming still operated a shelter. She stood with my son, helping him get his quickly growing little boy arm out of the sleeve of a costume that no longer quite fit. She held firm to the sleeve as he tugged against it. I could feel, in my own body, the strength of his tugs. The pain in my arm and shoulder would have forced me to let go, but Irene held fast. Her gentle voice coaxed him like a loving auntie as he worked to get his arm free. I watched as her hands cared for my child in a way that I could not and the power of the Holy Spirit surged, again. The tormenting voices of my mind, for a second, were silenced. In the stillness, another voice whispered, “Sister.” I walked up to Irene and put my hand on her arm. She gave me her smile, and I relished it. For that moment, I rested in the bond of family as I poured out thanks from my nervous, grateful heart.

Later, I stood alone with Irene in the parking lot. We talked, sisters, sharing feelings about the meal. The salad, dressed brightly with purple sage flowers, played in the eye of our minds. Irene’s own bright eyes shimmered with tears. “People don’t understand what it means to us. The beautiful colors, all those flavors, it feeds you in a whole different way. It’s hard out here. We get tired. We get lonely. Smelling all of those wonderful spices and seeing the love and care that goes into this food doesn’t just fill our bellies. It feeds our souls.” We stood there together, in deeply energized exhaustion, and held one another close. I kissed her cheek, and pressed my cheek into hers, feeling deeply the warmth of her skin, breathing in the scent of her dark waves of hair. We stood there, each with feet rooted, arms wrapped around one another. We made room for stillness, even if just for a few moments. We pressed our hands deeply into one another, and made room for dreams, for miracles, for hope that might yet shine through.

The Wilderness

Psalm 78:19 They railed against God and said, “Can God set a table in the wilderness?”

Saturday was beautiful. After months of unending rain the sun was finally shining. I rushed to the church to heat up the leftovers of my Syrian stew and rice. Enchiladas would be waiting in the courtyard, and two pots of stew. I knew there would be sandwiches and fruit. Mother Kathleen was bringing hummus wraps. Alison had given me four boxes of granola bars and trail mix. I had four gallons of water (some flavored with mint and cucumber, some with strawberry or strawberry and mint) waiting for me in the fridge. Brittney dropped off string cheese and boiled eggs. Jerri had left me a bag of tuna fish sandwiches, and there were beautiful boiled eggs from Jackie’s own chickens. Since the close of the Love Overwhelming shelter we’d been serving around 25-30 most Saturdays. Our cup runneth over. There would be plenty for all, with leftovers besides. What would we do with all this food!

Rushed, panicked, late. I arrived to see my partners already set up, waiting for me. My vision was glimmering diamond shapes of sun and green under the dappled shade of the courtyard parking lot with color breaking through at intervals where the people stood. A lot of people. My mind couldn’t see the faces but I knew there were a lot of people.

I couldn’t organize my thoughts. What to grab. What did I bring. What goes where. I got out of the car and saw my first face. A dear friend, a kind man who is always ready to help. When he saw me, his face glimmered along with the shivering of the leaves, eyes lit in the warmth of friendship. I ran to him right away. I wrapped my arms around his long, lean middle and pressed my head into his chest. “I’m so glad to see you.” I let out my breath for the first time that day. Anchored. I knew where I was.

One worry was lifted. Now, I had a friend to help me get the heavy things to the table. As I moved into position another face came into view. Jynx. She is a dear friend who had wanted to get involved with this ministry but struggled with many limitations of health. I encouraged her to come. “It is about more than food,” I told her. “It is about relationships. Caring. Connecting. Building community. Come be with us. Come build community.” And there she was. Sitting on her walker chair while her mother, Joyce, dished up dazzlingly colorful little cups of fresh Asian salad. Click. Another connection. Another door in me fell open and I moved to my spot at the table.

I looked down at the food. I couldn’t really see it. My energy was so high that it made no sense to me. A field of color. I grabbed a plate but I didn’t know what to do. My new friend, Kayce, appeared at my side. I looked into her pots before I looked into her eyes. Beautiful beef stew. I disappeared into those two pots, portals into the comfort of the family kitchen. She had brought it here to this table and we were about to share it. I looked into her eyes. Another click, and with her help, we started filling plates.

There were so many people. I felt like I had to move so fast. Too fast. I wasn’t getting time with my friends. But there were so many people and everyone was so hungry. Plate the food. But look up. Slow down just enough to look up and look into people’s eyes. A long row of eyes.

Click. Or more like a rhythmic, ascending clatter. The sound a falling row of dominos as all the connections snapped into place. I knew many of the names that went with those eyes. Some were eyes the names for which I was still learning. Some eyes were completely new. I said the names I knew, greeted each one. For those I was learning, I asked again. A steady flow of faces, bright with golden sun was set in their colors like flowers against the shimmering green of the leaves. In each meeting of eyes the light grew brighter.

There were several friends right in a row whose name I had to ask again. Behind them was a man I didn’t know. Small, tanned dark brown, his eyes were bright and eager, reaching for me. He had heard me ask the names of those who went before him. He didn’t wait to be asked. “My name is Mike!” he volunteered with great enthusiasm. Another door fell open. Everything froze as I saw him. His hunger. Deep, beyond the belly. Down to the place that craves companionship. Community. Connection. I stopped. I held up the line. I walked around the table and opened my arms. “Mike. I’m so glad you are here. It is so good to meet you. Thank you for coming.”

He came into me willingly and I held him. I pressed him to my chest and closed my eyes. I threw open doors, multitudes, echoing flutters of the fluttering leaves, and let my love flow freely out. “It’s so good to meet you,” I told him again. I felt myself breathe. Over the shoulder of my new friend the golden green light of the parking lot was infused with this love. I breathed it in. More open doors.

A hand appeared at my side. My sweet friend, David, of C-HOPE placed a small white glass soap dish next to me on the table. “That guy over there wanted you to have this,” he gestured. “The guy in the blue cap.” I looked up. I knew that man. I knew him before we started serving these meals. I had spoken to him many times. He would never tell me his name. “I’m Tempest! I’m Illusion!” magical answers from a magical mind. Sometimes, when I saw him, he was energized and happy. Sometimes, energized and angry. Sometimes, too depressed to speak. Today, he was happy. And he had brought me a gift. My heart swelled to the point of nearly breaking as I looked at that gift, glowing soft white in the golden flutter. It was a treasure. A connection, a kindness from a relationship nurtured over time.

We were beginning to see the bottom of our pots but the line was still coming. This was no ordinary Saturday. It didn’t seem we would have enough. David would occasionally report his count. “That’s forty.”, “Forty-eight.”, “Fifty.” We were out of beef stew. Out of enchiladas. Out of Asian salad. Almost all of it was gone. I dished up the last plates of my rice and stew and fretted heavily. There wasn’t going to be enough.

At last, the last person came through our line. Three plates were left on the table. A few came back for seconds and those three plates were gone. Done. I looked around the dappled parking lot at the crowd as they sat eating and talking in the grass. Now I could finally take some time to sit down with my friends.

Across the lot, I saw a woman I had known for a long while but whose name I did not know. She was never calm enough to ask her name. She showed up screaming, booming from down the street, assaulting the air with her rage. As she stood in line for food, she raged. Even as she ate, she raged. Stiff legged, screaming and pointing, she would assail the atmosphere of any space she entered, inconsolable and unable to connect. That day, miraculously, she was calm. Peaceful. She looked contented and quite beautiful. I took advantage of this rare opportunity and approached her. “I’m so glad you’re here!” I put my arms around her. She hugged me back, deeply. “You know, Friend, I’ve never had a chance to ask you your name.” I felt worried as I said it. How rude. As long as I had known her I should have known her name. My offense might bring on rage. Instead, she responded with open pleasantness, “It’s Mary.” Mary. Somehow it came as a surprise. I thought her name would be something else. But it was Mary. Click.

“You do know about Wednesdays?” I asked her. I had been telling everyone about the Wednesday meal and pointing out the somewhat challenging-to-find location behind us. “No!” she responded. When I pointed to the church and explained our new Wednesday arrangement she seemed surprised. “What do you mean?” she said, wide eyed. “Inside?? How did you pull that off??”

I stood for a second in the miracle of this conversation, and looked into her eyes. Energy spun around me like a whirlwind, blowing upward and tickling the leaves. Around us in the courtyard parking lot the golden air quivered with electricity and light. The air crackled with the power of the Holy Spirit. My mouth opened and I heard myself say, “The Spirit! Don’t you feel it? It’s alive all around us!” I wrapped my arms around her, again. Sweet Mary. Still enough to embrace. A wild woman had stepped out of the jungle and come to this table set by God. “We all have a light,” I told her. “When we join them they shine even brighter. That’s how we do it, with the power of the Spirit.”

Just like we had come together, a table set by God in the wilderness, a table that transformed the emptiness of that parking lot into our palace in the kingdom, we hastily broke apart. Friends were left scattered on the grass, talking quietly. My heart pulled me to them. I didn’t want to leave them behind. Suddenly, my friend with the blue cap appeared. Tempest. Illusion. He said to me, with passionate surprise, “Do you know what a blue footed booby is?? It’s a BIRD! It’s not even a booby! Oh, sure, you hear that word booby and you get all excited, but don’t! It’s a BIRD!” he went on, his impromptu comedy bringing laughs from any who heard him. I laughed until my stomach hurt. My friend had given me another gift.

Back at St. Stephen’s, Shawn and I unloaded our pots. I felt like I was running, still rushing, pushed forward with the power of the day. We stopped for a minute and caught each other’s eyes. Click. I breathed again. We reached for one another and clasped hands. We sat down. In the kitchen of St. Stephen’s we shared our day, our ministry, and the deep love we feel for one another and for our homeless friends.

“There was one late comer,” she told me. “We had fifty-two, all together. That last man came up and all the food was gone. I felt so awful. We had nothing to give him. Joshua heard me tell him we were all out of food. He had gotten one of those last plates of seconds. He rushed back to where he had left it, a untouched plate, and gave it to the late man. So everyone was fed, right now to the last. Today, every time I thought we were out of something I would turn around and there would be another bag of fruit or another bag of sandwiches. It was like a miracle. It’s like Jesus was there.”

We both walked out of the church on fire with the Spirit. As we drove away from one another the power of our connection only grew. Fed at God’s table, our light grows. Our lights joined together shine even brighter. Each of us that day walked away with a brighter light. We go out into the world to shine it, a lamppost, a beacon, a sign. A light is growing in the wilderness. Come, grow it with us.

Radical Love

Hebrews 13:1-2 Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. 2 Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.

I am a greeter. I stand in the narthex and watch the street. Far down the block I see one of our parishioners. I burst into rain and call out, “Good morning, friend! Welcome!” It’s a radical greeting, but radical is my style.

On Wednesdays, I am also a greeter. Under a canopy in the parking lot of the county building, Juice and I wait with our friends. Often its raining. Sometimes chilly winds steal napkins from the table as we rush to weigh them down with oranges or a ladle. On my vision’s horizon I see someone moving towards us. As he gets closer I recognize his shape, his walk, the color of his hair. “Joshua!” I call out, “I’m so glad to see you!” Just like on Sunday morning, I step out of my shelter and into the rain. In a few steps, Joshua is in my arms.

My heart falls open; I feel his heart. Through the thick layers of damp cloth, through the smell of wood smoke, I hold him. Someone’s child. an infant, a boy, a man. God’s child; he becomes mine. A few months ago, this man was a stranger. Now, he is my friend. Our hearts beat against one another. I say, “I love you, Joshua,” because I do. I say it with my mouth, I say it with my arms, I say it when I pour from my ladle a rainbow of color into his bowl, living food made with love.

It started last December. The closing of the local homeless shelter, Love Overwhelming, was almost certain and the temperatures at night were beginning to fall below freezing. I couldn’t stop crying. After days of tears, Juice and I made a giant pot of chili and put it in the trunk of our car. We drove around town looking for misplaced people living out in the cold. Chili with sour cream and cheese, bread and gingernaps. A few friends gave me money to buy hand warmers. Juice burst from the car at each stop, “Let me give!” he would cry. Later, when we shared the stories from that night, some people got excited. They gave us money and said, “Do it, again.”

Soon, with the help of donations and willing hands in the kitchen, we were delivering weekly meals to Love Overwhelming. At first, I thought I would leave my pot and go. But the night manager warned I might not see my pot again, so I stayed to serve the food. It was then that I discovered this ministry reached beyond providing a hearty, healthy meal. It was about relationships. Community. Friendship.

Week after week, we returned. I took our new friends on a culinary world tour. Morocco, India, Turkey, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Spain. Bowls full of rich flavor and color were served with love. I began to know the people we were feeding. I heard their stories as I ladled out rainbows. Red, orange, yellow, green. “We love it when you come,” they told us, “Your food tastes like love.”

The last night the shelter was open we brought Syrian stew. “Erika’s last supper!” our friends all cried. I promised them it was not. We would just have to eat outside. The very next Wednesday, we were back. Along with friends from the community and with the help of C-HOPE, our Wednesday meals continued. We stand together each Wednesday in a palace of the Kingdom, a palace that breaks apart and comes together in bursts of hastily set up tables and tents. It rises up and falls away like the rhythm of the breath, the great lungs of Christ’s living family, breathing life into life.

Now, thanks to Pastor Vonda McFadden of the Kelso United Methodist Church, we are moving our ministry indoors. She has opened up the dining facilities of the Presbyterian Church on Academy Street to our Wednesday meals and is willing to work with others who want to provide food to expand this effort to four days a week. Wednesday, May 3, will be the first time I sit down with my friends at a table and eat off of an actual plate. Some of my friends haven’t had that experience in years.

On the way to Emmaus, two encountered Christ on the road. They didn’t recognize him then, but he was with them. Christ is also walking with us on this journey. He is our companion as we come together with those forgotten ones he is guiding us to love and care for. When I hold Joshua, Joshua holds me, and Christ wraps his arms around us both.