As I walked to the back of the Open Door Ministry, the first thing I saw was the table with boxes and boxes of all types of bread and rolls, bagged in portions to be distributed. Of course I’d notice the bread. It’s one of my own personal drugs of addiction. The bread was next to the rows of grocery store bags containing the non-perishable food items. They were all lined up, soldiers ready to take on their mission. What really is the mission, I wonder?
I can see how easy it is to step into this type of serving situation with a bit of a superior attitude, although unintended and completely innocent. I’m one of several people who signed up in a time slot for this place which was a food pantry and clothing provider for those qualified to be in need. When I sign up to help people, I realize it sounds like it’s about me helping them. I’m one of those who has the resources, the health, the strength, the ability, and the desire to help others. What I have discovered, though, is that in the helping process, I am the one who’s receiving the work on my own heart. It’s not necessary to have the spiritual gift of mercy, or giving, or even compassion, to choose to sign up and be a part of a serving project. What is helpful on a personal level, however, is to tap into prayer for God to help me help others.
This time, I prayed about the serving project. I prayed I would help out in ways that were needed. I prayed I would see and hear what God would want me to see and hear. And so I did.
I saw the woman walk into the pantry for her first time. She was greeted by the staff with love and care. “Come on in!”, they’d say. “Sit down and let’s talk about what’s up.” So many of us simply need someone to sit down and listen to us. But many of us need a bit more; some tangible help. Not the smoothed-over “I’ll pray for you” comment, but a real listening ear and a chance for someone else to tap into our own life’s challenges to maybe take our hand and help us through the valley. In this place, there isn’t just the listening ear. There’s also the chance for hands-on help. It’s about finding the real need and meeting it. I could benefit from that focus when talking with my friends, my family, neighbors and acquaintances. Getting past the surface-level conversations and into real places of mission requires that I risk the next step that might require action on my part.
Then there was the couple who were browsing through the clothes racks, looking for something that would be useful and practical to put into their “free” bag of clothes. They had to guess at sizes since there wasn’t the opportunity to try things on, but they could take whatever they wanted. The larger-sized man stood next to me; I asked if I could help him find something in particular. “There’s not much in bigger sizes, is there?” I could have cried. My own food addiction had me in that familiar place so many times. I would be in a store and want to find something that fits and is helpful for my self-esteem, but larger sizes are elusive. It takes a lot more effort to find something that doesn’t look like a sack of potatoes when I’m overweight. His comment fueled me to take the time to take apart the slacks off the rack and look through several of them, one by one, to find the tiny size tag in the bottom right leg of the pants to read the numbers. We found one pair of slacks a little bit bigger, and it was like I found a treasure when I handed it to him.
Then there was the scary person. You know, the kind that make us say “Uh-oh, I don’t know if I could talk to her”. The miniskirt, fishnets and bleached hair seemed to offset the need to find sweaters and long-sleeved tops for her bag. I wondered what her story was. I asked if I could help her find something. She was looking for the blankets; they were usually in the back but must have been moved. She was obviously familiar with this place of handouts. How long does this go on, I wonder? How many times do these people come here. Is it possible to lack the motivation to move on?
Finally, the heart-wrenching interaction. It was unintended; I was finishing up the back rack of clothes to be sorted, not necessarily talking with anyone at the time, and next to me, on the chairs, were two small children. They were sitting quietly, one of them holding a bag of bread, waiting for the adults to finish their conversation and paperwork. The older child, a girl with bright eyes and dark hair to contrast her fair skin, looked up at me with a smile and simply stated “HI!” “Hi, there”, I replied. “This is my baby brother!”, she said, “and we got some bread to take home today.” I smiled, realizing the irony of the bread. “I bet you’re doing a great job helping to take care of him,” I responded. “Yes, I am!” A few seconds later, the adults finished. “Come on, it’s time to go!”, the girl said to her brother. “We can have some of this yummy bread when we get there!” She skipped out, taking my heart with her.
People are all the same, in some way, shape or form. She loved that bread as much as I do. She and her little brother could have older sisters and brothers that sit in the public school classroom next to my own children. We interact with people in need without realizing it. We don’t know other people’s stories, but we do know our own God, who makes us precious and unique. When we serve, let’s simply be our unique selves so that we can be like Jesus to people who need us. We end up receiving even more love and compassion ourselves. We simply can’t out-give God.