I was out with the mobile soup kitchen on a feeding run tonight, and unlike most nights, the vibe was strained on the truck. For starters, I’d arisen from my sick bed to show up for the commitment I’d previously made, realizing that in the past few weeks I’ve been writing about the homeless, thinking about them, talking about them a great deal… but that I needed to see them, touch them, talk to them — that being with them is what I love, not doing politics about them.
I felt ill on the run, alternately sweating and freezing, thinking I might pass out. There’s nowhere to sit on the truck, and the floor was slimy with spilled soup, so we volunteers slipped and slid around as it bumped along through the downtown streets. One of the regular volunteers was tired, which made her very sharp-edged. When she was rude to the rest of us one too many times, I came within an ace of walking away and hitching a ride back to my car. It was an unusually wretched start and middle to the run, and I was determined to just endure.
Then I began talking with Joe, a homeless man we picked up at the first stop to ride with us and help us feed. Wanting to get the real lowdown, I was asking him how things were out there. It was a grim, unflattering and unsympathetic portrait of who was out on the street and what was going on.
As the van clattered and lurched along, between bouts of bending over to slop scalding soup into paper cups, as I sweated and froze and felt I’d faint, as the grouchy volunteer barked irritable orders at everyone, as an uncharacteristically-rowdy, block-long line of ragged people milled and pushed and shoved and shouted outside the truck in front of the Day Resource Center, I thought to myself, “Now, exactly why am I doing this?”
Joe offered to do the ladling, and I stepped away to rest my back. He was so kind to notice I was tired. Then the director asked me to come outside the truck and ‘work on the ground,’ which I love, so it was a relief to get outside and hand people food and talk to them a little. “How are you? How’s it going?” “God bless you all for being out here!” they’d say, or “I’m OK, but I could sure use some work.” “Joseph, I’ll pray for you.” “Oh, thank you.” A man getting mock angry when I let a woman be served ahead of him. The woman giving me a hug, and then another. “Why do the women get to go first?” a man asks. “Does it make you men feel like chopped liver?” I joke with him. “You call them ladies, but you call us men.” “OK, we’ll call you gentlemen from now on!”
I was starting to loosen up, to remember, to feel what this was about.
And then I began to look into their faces, one by one, as they stepped up in line to receive their soup, sandwich, cookie and banana. A young woman with cerebral palsy, looking brave and dignified, not wanting to meet my eyes. A man who could barely stand, trying to signal something as he swayed away, almost as if he were crossing himself. A woman deathly pale with a yellowish pallor to her skin and a cap pulled down that barely covered the absence of hair. People with skin leathered and hands swollen from the cold. Someone blind. Someone on crutches. So many of them thanking us, blessing us, wishing us Merry Christmas. Loving us for loving them. Dark faces, pale faces, every kind of face in the world.
Broken faces. Broken, as we all are.
Beauty. Real beauty.
We left, and as we rumbled back toward our starting point, I thought, “This is why I do it. To be near them.”
But, still, why? What is the Grace that’s near them, that spills over onto me, that makes me want to be out in the cold, ladling soup, giving away sandwiches? When I try to pin down a reason, it slides away, like mine and Joe’s tennis shoes on the soupy metal floor of the catering truck.
And then, sitting here in Barnes and Noble, drinking my hot cocoa, feeling less at odds and less resentful of the middle-class Dallas culture than I did in my first entries into this journal a year ago — accepting it, even, and my place in it, and the fact that I drive a nice car while many people have no homes… Remembering that driving here, I drove all the way down Beverly Drive looking at the stupendous displays of Christmas lights and didn’t need to turn away in frustration, accepting that that kind of wealth is part of life, too — just observing, not judging…
Anyway, I got it, sitting here, remembering the beauty, the desperation, the softness, the fear, the humanity, the love, the blankness, the greed, the need — in those broken faces in the crush of people outside the Day Resource Center — giving to them out of my own brokenness, as they gave to me. I got it…
The beauty, the grace is in the brokenness.
But it makes no sense! And when I once read that Henri Nouwen said it, I thought, well, my great hero is just wrong on this one. Beauty in healing? in unconditional love? in service? Sure. But in brokenness?
The only connection I can make is with Christ’s broken body on the cross. But wasn’t the beauty in the resurrection? The brokenness of Christ’s body I find devastating! Do we have to be broken first in order to be healed? Is it because only through brokenness comes the possibility of Grace?
The Spirit of Love is out there on the street, for sure — in the people themselves — surrounding them, hovering near them. I feel the intensity of Christ’s Love there, have always felt it.
It a mystery, a magnificent mystery.
And our street people show it to me. Every time.