ONE GUEST, ONE CONVERSATION
I think everyone who volunteers at Daily Bread has a big heart and great compassion for the people we serve. But for many of us, certainly myself, there is a big gulf between the lived experience of most guests, and our own lives outside the Pantry. Language, culture, economic circumstance, and many other factors conspire to introduce an "us and them" dimension to our interactions. Our "grab and go/move the line quickly" model does little to bridge that divide.
At our distribution on Christmas Eve, however, I received a real gut-punch corrective to that experience. Another volunteer pointed out a lady - a new guest - who was insistent on taking just the very minimum amount of food. She spoke with an English accent - unprecedented during my time with the Pantry - and seemed about my age. A short conversation revealed she had grown up in Northwest England, just a few miles from where I had. So we immediately established a personal connection that is often elusive with other guests. She was articulate, thoughtful, matter-of-fact; and homeless. We talked a little about how difficult it was to navigate the social security programs in Connecticut, and how unattractive the shelter system was, even if you had no other option but to sleep on the streets. She gratefully accepted a few cans of tuna and other easy-to-eat items, but refused a bag of clementines because they would freeze - or if they did not freeze, would make her hands sticky. It was somehow this last, almost throwaway observation, that shook me most. Being homeless brings with it innumerable discomforts, but the lack of running water to wash your hands after the simple enjoyment of an orange somehow crystallized the whole wretched condition.
Very few of our guests are homeless, and this lady was not representative of most of our visitors in many other ways. But her gift to me was a reminder that each and every one of our guests is unique, with their own story. In a better world, each guest's circumstances would resonate with me just as much as they did with my compatriot. That is my deficit, not theirs, and I shall always try to remember that.
On a far more prosaic level, the conversation also reminded me why, with so many government programs available to alleviate hunger, we need to exist. These programs are difficult to navigate, and even when navigable are slow and cumbersome. Like justice, food delayed is food denied. Yes, we have to have some process around helping our guests, but we are here to help people now, with the absolute minimum of red tape. We are not blind to the opportunities that creates for abuse, but that is a small price to pay to ensure those truly in need get help when they need it.
I know I'm preaching to the converted here, but I wanted to share this with you, while it was fresh in my mind.