Surprise party

October 24, 2007

It’s hard to blog on a Cranky Tuesday when you’ve had as wonderful of a long birthday weekend as I did.  Hence the title of this post, although I don’t intend it to refer to an actual suprise party, per se, but more the surprise of finding out that I found so many things to celebrate and people to celebrate with as my 26th birthday came and went. Seriously, I was planning on some major depression. Instead, I started out the weekend pretty sure that I had finally figured out the real point of birthdays after the age of 21: to affirm to yourself that you have enough good friends in the world to all gang up and help you forget that you are getting older. I finished it thinking, I’m so excited to keep going, for better and inevitably for wrose. As Lopate suggests in “Against Joie de Vivre” (guess what was on our CNF syllabus this week!), hungry is perhaps the most honest way to be, and for the moment I am that, in spades. More cake, more laughter, more wine, more sweaty hours in soup kitchens not quite sure of what I’m doing with my life.

Yes, hours in soup kitchens. That’s how I spent my actual birthday, Saturday. For a while now, it’s been pretty clear that I was going to be spending my birthday weekend doing some form of youth group chaperoning. I used to be sanguine about it, but as the semester progressed and the true insanity of my schedule became more apparent, I started dreading having my weekend of celebration taken up by commitments to church. Bleh. For a brief moment in time, it looked like I was going to be off the hook, but then at the last minute another chaperone bailed on the high school service project and I was back on deck. I was bummy, but we managed to negotiate to arrive on Saturday morning rather than Friday night, freeing us up to spend a truly lovely evening with Diego, Frida, LL & co. Pasta, wine, and conversation al fresco, and for once the baby’s need to go to bed got us all headed home at a decent hour. I guess 26 is just about the age when you start to think that going to bed early when you have to get up really early is a good thing to do, rather than just staying up all night and dealing with the pain the next morning.

We arrived at the Missionaries of Charity in Overtown around9am. It was already hot and sticky, and there was already a line of homeless people stretching around the block as we made our way inside to join the high school youth group. They had been there since 7, with nothing to do, it turned out, but learn how to say a Hail Mary. One thing I learned on our trip to NYC last summer is that volunteering in soup kitchens is a very amorphous experience. Sometimes you do nothing but chop, spoon, and sweep for six hours straight, and sometimes there is nothing for you to do. So our kids had some time to sit, look at all the pictures of Mother Teresa, and look at all the kids from Catholic school reciting rosaries like creatures from another planet. When we got there, activity picked up a bit, and we served and washed dishes for the rest of our stay.

At the end, we had a few minutes to speak with one of the soup kitchen coordinators. She wasn’t a nun, but she was very Catholic. When the kids asked her what the number one thing she thought they, as a youth group, could do for the homeless in Miami, she answered quickly and simply: pray.

That is probably the last thing we expected to hear, and I’m pretty sure the look on my face was skeptical. We are Protestant; love is a form of the verb “to do.” We teach our kids to sing a song that points out the difference between believing in Jesus and following Jesus, with a strong preference for following. Prayer? How about a fundraiser, a clothing drive, and a protest instead? But she was firm in her insistence on the primacy of prayer, and explained to us that the sisters of the Missionaries of Charity make no requests for donations whatsoever. They rely completely on providence. They have no idea how much food they will have each time they open their doors. She told us a story about a time they ran out of all kinds of soap and could not wash the dishes for the second seating. The volunteers decided to make a prayer circle–typical. I would have been all, look, I have this thing called a credit card, I’m going to go hit up Target and back in a flash. No sooner had they finished praying than there was a knock on the door, and some delivery guy said he had just had the strongest feeling that he should bring the extras from his last drop-off to this door. Of course, his truck was full of dish detergent. Explain it any way you like, that’s their definition of a miracle, or put another way, a life of faith.  And whatever I think, or believe, or do, there is tremendous power in people who truly live that way.

Later that day, we went to another mission for the homeless, this one with a profoundly evangelical bent. Again, there was a surplus of volunteers and little for our ten kids to do but talk to the homeless themselves, which is exactly what we encouraged… no, told them to do. If you’ve never tried it, I will openly say that talking to the people you are trying to serve is much, much harder than washing crusty baking pans or scraping mashed peas into a dumpster. As a chaperone, it’s tempting to stand back and tell the kids to go do it, but you lose credibility fast if you don’t try it yourself. So I did, and it did get easier with time but it was never easy to walk up to a stranger so seemingly distant from your own world and say hi, is this seat taken, can I sit down? Usually, the answer is yes, and then you’re in it, you’re right alongside this person, and all of a sudden he or she isn’t nearly different enough from you. You could be her.  You wonder why you aren’t and you realize there is no good reason, in some ways.

Seeing us do this really got the other volunteers’ (Catholic ones, from a Neuman club somewhere) dander up. When our kids lined up to eat along with the homeless, they got dirty looks and remarks such as “go home and eat your own food.” Fair enough, but a Christian sentiment? Hardly. One of the adults in that group took me aside and said I shouldn’t let the kids talk so freely, that we were “lambs among wolves.” Fair enough, there’s some level of danger, but they were never alone and it was a small, brightly lit space. Their attitude toward service was unambiguous: the homeless are there and we are here, we are helping them. Our attitude tends to want to blur the boundaries: we are all here together, we have something to learn from each other. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but I do think that ours is more challenging. And I love that, and I love the kids for being a part of that. When we got back to our bunk beds and sleeping bags at the church we were staying at, they sang me happy birthday and said I wasn’t old. I love them for that too.
Sunday we woke up early again for two more soup kitchen stops, and I thought I was going to be too tired and homework-fearing to stick around in Miami afterward, but when we dropped my sister-in-law off, there was a birthday tea party in the works. Little sandwiches, tea, cake, and Birthday Cake Remix ice cream from Coldstone. My cup was truly running over.

And somewhere in here, something happened to me. I started thinking that maybe I could go to the baby shower. Maybe I could even go to two, which is they have planned. Maybe sometimes I can do what I don’t want to do and find out that it helps me more than anyone else. The prayer of going through the motions until it means something is the one I pray most often.

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