Volunteering with Michael Bowen

by Michael Bowen & r & Snapshot impressions from volunteering as a lunchtime food server at the Union Gospel Mission on East Trent Avenue: Scooping out turkey casserole onto orange plastic trays. So many downcast eyes. Glimpses of tattoos snaking down forearms, of leathery faces folded around milky eyes, of bare midriffs with surgical scars. "Would you like a roll with that?"

A windowless room with a depressing beige linoleum floor; men hunkered down at cafeteria tables; not many smiles.

The surfer guy who thanked people compulsively; the fat man with the sidelong, bug-eyed smile; the graybeard who simply nodded. Gang members and broken-down alcoholics trying to maintain dignity. An ex-Marine (judging from the haircut) -- suspicious of a newcomer, tight-lipped, still ramrod straight. What were their stories? What had brought them to a place where they had to put their vulnerability (financial and spiritual) on display?

Nearly always, they averted their eyes, preferring to get this lunch-line encounter over with. Accepting ladled-out food at a soup kitchen isn't exactly an indicator that your life has turned out the way you'd hoped.

The guy who was serving salads near me was singing, goofing around, enjoying his work. Probably he's part of the Mission staff. Except I found out over lunch that he'd been here "about a week" and was planning on taking a nap after lunch over at an adjacent park.

"They close it down for a couple of hours after lunch," he said. "Kitchen work's not too bad," he added, seeming glad to have some structure in his life, "though they'll put you wherever they need you."

Next to him, a sour-faced man with a ponytail spoke in monosyllables, never making eye contact.

Names aren't exchanged much at a place like the Mission; it's only temporary, after all, and besides -- despite differences of detail in their tales of addiction and broken lives, the stories of all these men come down largely to the same thing: down and out, loss of hope, no place else to turn, maybe I'll give this Jesus thing a try.

But they were adapting at different rates. Some, you could just tell, had jumped wholeheartedly into the praise-Jesus outlook; others, leery, kept their eyes lowered and their counsel to themselves.

Before showing up to volunteer, I'd wondered about the conflict between religious sincerity and insincerity at the UGM. How many of these men are true believers? How aggressive would the proselytizers be? How many of the homeless are here just for the food, rolling their eyes at all the impassioned prayers about the sacred blood of Jesus?

Dinner on Friday night hinted at a partial answer. The mood was more upbeat than it had been two days before at lunch, even among "the general population," the people coming in right off the street.

The jarhead Marine, now decked out in blue polyester shorts that matched his Seattle Seahawks shirt, had cooked the dinner and was sharing wisecracks alongside me as we scooped food out of large serving pans: pastrami, sauerkraut, carrots and broccoli, grilled veggies, rice and bread (for sandwiches, along the salad bar further on down the line).

A cheerful Hispanic man led a prayer before the meal -- thanking, among others, "the people who came in to prepare and serve this food." All I was doing was placing lumps of rice on trays as fast as I could, then trying to get the hang of grasping rye or wheat bread with clear plastic gloves while listening for the mumbled preferences of the men going through the line. But I'd been included in the prayer.

And if a sense of "being included" meant that much to me -- with my family, friends and steady job -- imagine how much it might mean to a guy right off the street?

A carved wooden sign over the kitchen's hand washing station informs readers that "Christ is the Head of this house, the unseen Guest at every meal."

People of faith imagine him sitting right there next to the awkward, the disoriented, the ones who never lift their eyes off that worn linoleum floor.

What I remember from previous experiences (like reading to the blind) is that acts of generosity toward those less fortunate than ourselves have an unexpected effect on the supply-and-demand equation of personal happiness: They reduce the demand.

Reading more books, seeing more movies, listening to more music -- I can accumulate a bigger stash of the things that make me happy all I want. But there will never be enough.

There are things, however, that will reduce my internal demand for more and more episodes of happiness: helping -- or simply coming into repeated contact with -- people whose own needs are quite basic.

By sharing with people whose happiness quotient goes way up if they just have food to eat and a warm place to stay, I can reduce the insistence of my own demands. After volunteering, I need less stuff because I've witnessed other people who have less stuff and need it less. Who am I to expect more?

Helping out at the Union Gospel Mission, it struck me, was like the opposite of going shopping. At the shopping mall, everybody's in acquisitive mode: buy, sell, ka-ching, we're happy. The Mission, in contrast, fosters a culture of generosity. The men in the recovery programs, the families off the street, even the staff who are there everyday -- they express their gratitude over the smallest things. It's expected; it's reciprocated. While it's not universal -- a couple of the street people I encountered acted as if they were entitled to the free food -- for the most part, when people at the Mission say thank you, they feel it, they mean it.

During a lull in the dinner rush, I wandered from my station to peek at the salad bar. That's when I realized that, from the vantage point of the men in the cafeteria, I had been serving them food from underneath a sign reading, "Union Gospel Ministries -- Hope starts here!"

That can't always be true. Sadly, there must be plenty of men who drift in and out of this place, never quite able to pluck themselves from life on the street.

Yet while I'd come in a bit skeptical about the subtle coercions of the Christianity at the Mission, I'd left with a renewed sense of the redemptive power of generosity. As usual, volunteering had proven to be a two-way street. I just served some food, but the men at the Mission had rekindled my potential -- even if just for a short while --for being selfless.

The Union Gospel Mission is at 1224 E. Trent Ave. To volunteer, call 535-8510.

1912 Center Winter Market @ 1912 Center

Sat., Feb. 4, 9 a.m.-1 p.m. and Sat., March 4, 9 a.m.-1 p.m.
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