By Rita Walters, Chief Development Officer for Catholic Charities of Baltimore
I admit it. This IS one of those #myjobisbetterthanyourjob post, but hang in there with me, please; I promise it will not be as obnoxious as the hashtag reads.
Recently, most of my Advancement colleagues and I served at Our Daily Bread Employment Center (ODBEC), a Catholic Charities of Baltimore program. As the name implies, we feed people, and on that day, we fed about 650 guests within 2 hours. New to Catholic Charities and my first time as a volunteer at ODBEC, “it was a light day,” they told me. In between guests, my job was to clean and reset the table. So with many rounds of 8, people sat and rose constantly throughout lunch, but it was the very first guest that shaped my experience.
As people line up outside, they are given an entry ticket, and at 10:30 a.m., guests enter an open seating dining area where they are served by volunteers. A hearty balanced meal, including bread and dessert, tea and water and a choice of a vegetarian or meat protein meal, is served. The first guest in my section, the green section, enters and his face is buried in a newspaper; but he is holding the newspaper crossways so the words do not appear as words at all, but look more like Morse code. He sat down, raised his fork under the paper, all while never revealing his face. He drank his tea the same way. Still shielding his face, he ate quickly. He rose and I could see that he had eaten all his food. He returned his empty plate and teacup; and just as mysteriously as he entered, he was gone. Had he felt ashamed? Why was I now feeling ashamed? And why were my thoughts of the summer of 1972? I am instantly 7 years old again in Newark, NJ and I hear the call to lunch, but it’s not my mother, it’s Ms. Janice, the Rec Center leader. My friends and I put down our cards, our jacks, our jump ropes and grab a brown bag lunch. Free lunch. After all these years, I no longer remember what was served; but somehow, it surely involved yellow cheese. By the end of that summer, I hated two things: people who cheated at Spades and yellow cheese. Little has changed.
He could have sat anywhere, and he sat in my section. How did he know I read Morse code? What HELP did he think I could offer? “I’m seven, I too am on the mercy of world!” I almost yelled. So under my breath, I cursed our policymakers and the increasing holes in our collective safety nets. Only 15 minutes had passed into a two-hour shift, so I decided right then and there, perhaps it’s best that I am unseen too, but he had taken the newspaper with him! My head slightly bowed, eyes cast down, quietly and dutifully, I swiped up water or slight spills and reset napkins and forks.
And that’s where I expected the story to end. Then I began to notice, guest after guest, at table after table, a community of generosity. Now, I am seldom surprised by generosity – as a professional fundraiser, that would be a job hazard. So I look for it everywhere. Surely I witnessed it in the several for-profits companies that had come to volunteer as a by-product of team building and corporate responsibility; I saw it in the students who were completing service hours, a requirement for graduation; and I certainly stood in awe of the senior citizens who served with ease and dignity. One older gentleman has been volunteering for 14 years; and for all the long-term volunteers, their hugs, warm greetings and big smiles proved that there was something larger than themselves at work. They loved what they were doing and they loved the guests they served. But it was the guests themselves who impressed me the most. Their generosity gave me the most hope. One guest offered his bread to another guest, another offered his salad, and another still, his cupcake; many to random strangers. It went on like this throughout the duration of the meal. Some people, without polling the table, simply left their untouched deserts or extra bread in the center of the table for anyone. They rose from the table not knowing who would benefit from their largess, only knowing that someone might. And isn’t that the real gift? Maybe that’s what my stranger-friend with his sideways newspaper was really signaling to me. It wasn’t SOS, it was LOVE. Love thy neighbor as thy self. Spread love by offering some of what you have to others. Time, talent, treasure.
Oh, by the way, by the end of my shift, I’d receive several proposals for marriage (since I’m already married many were willing to wait) and two offers to attend yoga or meditation with me…so yeah, somewhere along the way, I looked up and laughed out loud and even wondered why we just didn’t clear the tables and play cards. After all, these stranger-friends had already proven that they were too generous to cheat at spades.
By Rita Walters, Chief Development Officer
for Catholic Charities of Baltimore