If you’ve been reading along, you know that I’d been traveling with my friend Rebekah across the country on this journey. I knew Rebekah would be ending her journey in Nashville, but having that knowledge didn’t make it any easier to leave her behind. On top of that, I’d been away from home for almost two weeks and the pervasive Christmas music reminded me that I was missing time with my family during the holidays. I was definitely starting to miss home. The irony was that from Nashville it would have been just a three hour drive to home in Memphis. Not only was I not going home, but I was continuing on alone. This was my mindset as I headed for Atlanta.
I decided to spend my morning in Atlanta volunteering at the Morning Sandwich Ministry, which is run out of the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in downtown. I had be there early and I’ve heard tales of the infamous Atlanta traffic, so I decided to stay nearby in downtown, thinking it would help me get there on time in the morning. That was my rationale. Now let me back track for a minute.
In most of the cities we’d visited up to this point, we were housed by friends, family, and sometimes total strangers. When we did need to stay in a hotel, we tried to be frugal and I went extra frugal in Atlanta since I didn’t have to think about accommodations for two people and a large dog. I picked a hotel and hoped for the best. It was one of the worst places I have ever stayed. The first room they sent me to was already occupied. That was unpleasant for everyone. It also made me worry about a stranger walking into my room. When I finally entered a vacant room that night, I realized the bathroom was dirty and the comforter had cigarette burns and mystery stains in multiple places. I wore my flip flops in the shower and peeled the comforter off with two fingers. I blocked the door with a chair, used my coat as a blanket, and waited for morning. I tell you this not to make you feel sorry for me but because I want to describe the battle going on in my own mind that night. As I lay there missing my own bed, I suddenly felt overwhelming guilt. Here I was, traveling across the country with the goal of bringing attention to the plight of the less fortunate and yet I was lamenting my own good fortune! In the morning I would get up and serve breakfast to people who would jump at the chance to sleep in a warm safe place. The part I have to confess is that even after I had this realization, I still found myself oscillating back and forth between discontent for my surroundings and guilt for the discontent. Let’s just say I didn’t sleep well that night. The more I wished for morning, the more elusive it became.
I slept fitfully that night and when my alarm went off, it was one of the few mornings in my life that did not involve the snooze button. Once I was out of the hotel, I felt much better. It was cold that morning, but the sun was shining and after a few minutes, I arrived at the front of the church to see that there was already a line of people wrapped around the corner of the building.
I parked in a small lot near the back of the church and walked towards the door that Deacon Bill had described over the phone. I looked back towards the street where the guests would file in a few minutes later. He explained that only volunteers were allowed inside: the visitors would stop at the door to collect their food and coffee, but then they had to move on. He was very clear – for safety and logistic reasons, there would be no guests inside. This alley and back door was all they would see this morning.
Deacon Bill told me that he couldn’t be there that morning, but that the other regular volunteers would walk me through the process. When I arrived, I met several of the men who ran the morning ministry. Robert had a quiet confidence about him – soft spoken, perfect English and an incredible presence. If he were dressed in a suit and tie, he could easily pass in any board room. Leo ran the show and was practically the opposite. He definitely had the confidence part, but he was LOUD and sometimes spoke to the guests in words I could hardly decipher. Leo was in charge and he ran a tight ship. Sam was very kind hearted and I spent most of my time that day working with him. He was a kind and interesting man who was very patient with the guests and with me – even when I accidentally held up the serving line once or twice (ok three times). I know less about Bobby but can tell you that he was a hard worker, bustling in the kitchen the whole morning.
Next to the door, I saw a Christmas tree covered in decorations – including several star of David ornaments.
One of the volunteers explained that it’s a symbol that everyone is welcome at the ministry. Everyone, that is, except the lady who pushed past us to use the bathroom. Sam and I were standing at the door getting everything set up, when an older lady rolled her suitcase right past us into the hallway near the Christmas tree. Loudly and indignantly she told us she had to use the bathroom despite that fact that Sam was apologetically telling her no. She quickly shuffled (if you can imagine that combination) towards the bathroom around the corner and locked the door. Within about 30 seconds, Leo caught wind of the situation and stormed around the corner after her. Then we heard yelling. It was something to the effect of “Lady, you get outta there in 10 seconds or I’m callin’ the police,” which was followed by something indistinguishable from her that really irritated Leo. He got louder, “You come outta there right now!” he bellowed. At first, this was a shock for me. I’ve worked multiple times with the homeless population, but upon reflection, I realized that this was the first time that I’d encountered gruffness on the part of the staff. After a bit of the shock wore off I admitted to myself that a kinder tactic might not have worked. If I had gone down and knocked sweetly asking her to come out, she would have ignored me just as she had initially. Eventually she emerged, telling us off on her way back out the door. Whew. Atlanta had been a little rough on me so far.
With that behind us, we started the assembly line and began to hand out food to the people lining up at the door. Leo stood outside and kept order, which among other things meant ladies first in the serving line. Everyone got a sandwich, a slice of warm pizza, a sweet, and some coffee. As people filed through the line, I noticed the wide array of clothing. It was cold and clear that morning. Most people were bundled up, but the clothes were an awkward assortment. Some men were wearing women’s coats and many of the women were wearing men’s coats. One man had mismatched gloves – a pink knit on one hand and a black ski glove dangling from the other. At first I felt bad until I realized that many others were vigorously rubbing their hands together because they had no gloves at all. At one point, I reached down for a sandwich and when I turned to the next person in line, I found myself staring into an empty eye socket. I felt the shock register on my face and while it only lasted a split second, I was instantly ashamed by my reaction. I searched the woman’s face to see if I had offended her, but her expression gave little indication of whether she even noticed.
Sometimes I worry that people will think I’m starring at them. They go unseen for so long that I wonder if it’s uncomfortable to have me look at them. Some people don’t even seem aware – they’re already turning away as I hand them their food. Others seem to notice that I make an effort to give a genuine smile and to make eye contact. One man said I had beautiful blue eyes. I smiled a little extra and said “Thanks – my grandma gave them to me.”
Eventually we ran out of sweets, and then coffee, and then pizza. They said the line had been extra long that day. Some of the people in line were about my age, most were older, but with many it was hard to tell. You never know if someone’s appearance is due to true age or if it’s the age that comes from a rough life.
Please support our grass-roots volunteerism project! We’ll be traveling the country to highlight non-profits and inspire volunteerism coast to coast.