“There are two kinds of volunteers,” the manager at The Living Room Cafe tells me. “Ones that zero in on the cooking, dicing the onions, frying the fish, mashing the potatoes. And ones that ignore the kitchen and go straight for the coffee and the tables and the guests.”
Of the two, I’m the latter. I’ve been serving breakfast to homeless men and women for four years, through a Chicago-based program run by Inspiration Corporation. The meals are served restaurant-style and a new menu is posted daily. At the cafe, volunteer servers take individual orders and volunteer cooks work hard to honor their requests. Meatless spaghetti sauce or eggs over medium, nothing is too small to ask.
This morning, while juggling juice glasses, hot tea, and several sets of silverware, I weave in and out of the tables. This is Kevin’s first week. He shakes my hand and thanks me for being here. Mary is quick to show me pictures of her new grandbaby. Howard tells bad jokes that make us laugh in spite of ourselves. Janice talks to me about an upcoming job interview. Robert gives me the latest in sports.
Volunteering at the cafe has changed me. When I see an older woman standing at a major intersection, holding a battered coffee cup and a cardboard sign that asks for help, I feel overwhelmed. Poverty and homelessness can be so daunting. But at the cafe, I step outside of myself and come into community. Pretty soon, these issues take on faces and names and life stories.
One morning I sit next to Michael. He secured his apartment through the cafe after being homeless for three years. He works downtown and comes to the cafe on his days off to spend time with his friends.
He tells me all about the woman he loves, how they met, how he worries he’s not enough for her. I listen to how they sit by the lake, how he writes her poetry, how he’s afraid he’s not smart enough, how he can’t wait to take her out to the theatre like the men and women he sees getting out of taxis downtown, how he has to go to a thrift shop to get a button-down shirt for a wedding they’ve been invited to.
And one day it hits me, stops me cold. When had I ever looked at a man or woman on the street and thought about whom they loved?
Michael’s story opened my eyes. We are all human. And we all love.
I believe in change. I believe in our unending capacity to change ourselves and to be changed by others. Serving breakfast has taught me that you never know the moment change is going to happen, any more than you know the impact you have on people.
So all I can do is live into hope and know that at 7 a.m. when I walk into the cafe, everyone inside brings out the very best in me.
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