All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.
~ Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-68) American minister and civil rights leader
We arrive at the soup kitchen in the early morning, leaving the van parked on a side street besides idling men, loose dogs and flocks of pigeons. We have volunteered enough mornings to know the drill- up the sidewalk, pardoning ourselves as we dart and weave through the throngs of people waiting in line for bags of day old baked goods, styrofoam cups of hot soup and bagged lunches. In the doorway crowded with crates of donated vegetables from local supermarkets, past workers singing along to the local Spanish radio station. Happy musica. Head to the back of the little house. Wash up in a tiny bathroom that also serves as a storage room for paper products, don gloves and join others around a stainless steel table. We volunteers await instructions, a motley mixture of church goers, nuns, retirees, young men needing to fulfill community service requirements.
What will we be doing today? Making sandwiches? Making lunches? Or will we be adding to sack lunches to make them heartier meals for those who live outside and depend on the calories inside the bag to sustain them for another day?
The assembly line is set up. Sandwiches are to be made. Slices from a loaf of bread are dealt, like cards, upon the table. Half are given a swipe of mustard and mayo that has been mixed up in a large bowl. A disposable aluminum pan, filled with many pounds of drippy, wet cold ham lunch meat is set beside.
Nobody says, Ready, set, GO. But we move at rapid speed. Sandwiches slapped together are pushed down the table to people who bag sandwiches that accumulate rapidly in neat stacks in heavy plastic crates. Fill a crate. Move it aside. Stack it. Find another crate. Clumsy hands at first, mayonnaise on the outside of a bag as over sized bread refuses to tuck into its plastic bag cover neatly. Fold the bag over. Stack the sandwich. Grab another.
I’m still surprised by the number of bagged lunches handed out per day. One thousand. How much need is there in our city?
How bad is it out there?
What would happen if no volunteers showed up?
There are no sign up sheets. People just appear in the mornings and are put to work. How does everything run so smoothly without a posted schedule? But it does. The sandwiches are made, the lunches are assembled- hard boiled egg-apple-orange-sandwich-sandwich-salty snack-yogurt. And they are handed out.
For the past two months, I was having trouble sleeping. Having trouble making sense of what happened.
It seemed the only thing that made sense was making sandwiches. I could do that. I cannot fix everything. I can, however, fix a sandwich.
I thought it was just the people who needed to eat them that were being helped. I’ve come to learn that the people making the sandwiches are being helped, too.
It’s healing to help others. There’s a comfort in knowing something good is being done. That we are not alone. That while it is true people can do bad things in this world, we can also come together and do good things.
In fixing sandwiches, I am fixing myself.