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