Uneven Ground, part II – “…turn the other also.”
“Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” - Isaiah 40:4
Probably my favorite helper organization in Memphis is the local chapter of The Society of St. Vincent de Paul. The Society, founded in France, has been helping those in need for over 200 years. In Memphis this primarily takes the form of a food mission, serving one meal every single day of the year for over 30 years. For at least the last seven of those years, this has been done with one paid employee – the kitchen manager. Teams of cooks and servers come from all over the city to prepare meals at the mission on Monroe Avenue or donate snacks, sundries, and various items from their stock. This includes one well-known local food company and multiple retailers and restaurants.
Volunteers and team leaders bring this all together to provide an early meal – brunch if you will – to an average of 150 of our neighbors. Again, that’s every day, with rare exception. This includes a massive effort of coordinating donations, shipments from the food bank, and making sure there are enough volunteers in the kitchen to make it all happen. Before the pandemic, folks would come into the dining area, which held about 50. They would sit in the chapel for at least some time, not only waiting to eat, but especially for the ones experiencing homelessness, a brief respite from the heat or cold or rain. Of course this all changed in March of 2020. The board and volunteers creating a system of preparing meals in “to go” containers and handed them through a window at first – with a fan blowing out – then built a slotted door addition to what used to be the exit door in the dining area. Of course, the number of people served and meals needed greatly increased, but local establishments and volunteers stepped up.
As with any population, some of the “neighbors in need” are dealing with a host of issues. Some of the staff and volunteers haven’t always recognized that and have been asked not to come back. There’s been, I think, a good shakeup in the last couple of years. Unfortunately, this community of clients and servers has suffered some losses. Some of the best people (RIP “Big Country”) have been lost to Covid-19 or other natural causes and some are afraid to come back to serve due to their health risks.
The mission has been without that one paid employee, the kitchen manager, for several weeks now. While volunteers have mostly filled the role, occasionally obstacles pop up they just can’t handle. Last week, while nearing the end of the serving time (mostly a time for seconds), they ran out of prepared food. Of course the people waiting to be served were not happy. For many this is their only meal, or good meal, of the day. However, there was nothing to be done. A pair of volunteers went outside to clean up and retrieve the water cooler and were met with threats. Now, people are people and often this is just talk, but there have been fights and assaults at the mission. Extremely rare, but there are a very few people that show up to be served who are, we’ll say, less needy than others. The volunteers mostly ignored the talk and again apologized to everyone present for the food shortage. Fortunately the talk did not move to bad deeds, but this presents a challenge – could you go back into that environment, knowing a risk is there?
“But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” - Matthew 5:39