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.