Community around the table

ALL we did was make a pot of soup and open the back door. Oh, we did distribute a few handwritten leaflets around downtown Lincoln. But other than that, we didn't do much more than begin to offer food to hungry people. We found there are a lot of them, even here in Nebraska. On-the-job training, I suspect it's called. About 50 of us - church people, homemakers, teachers, retired businessmen, high school and college students, professionals, old, young, and middle-aged - provide the soup and the volunteer labor during this third year of our soup kitchen's life.

It took a year for word to get around, for people to trust us and to outgrow the little back room of an old house called the Gathering Place. Now we serve from 40 to 60 people every night in the front rooms of the Gathering Place, single adults, some families, some ``street people,'' people from the neighborhood on fixed incomes, regulars, transients. Hunger knows little human distinction.

In November of 1985 we opened the Soup Kitchen at the Gathering Place, a ministry of hospitality operating in an old home on the edge of downtown Lincoln. Since 1981, the Gathering Place has sold lunch to the public in the first- and second-floor rooms of the graceful old house, offered classes and programs. The Gathering Place dream is that in the intimate communion of eating together, people could come to know and love themselves, and a sense of mission to others would grow out of that experience.

We Soup Kitcheners have learned a lot in these three years and are still available, by being there every night, to be taught. We have a lot to learn about the ``charity'' of cooking and serving food for those who do not have enough to eat, or enough companionship in their days, to be nourished.

Community happens around the tables among the diners and sometimes includes us, the servers. We forget about our server selves and enter into the human family eating soup and good bread, drinking coffee, being warm and safe for an hour. Both diners and servers tease and talk, help each other out, in that familiarity and security that come in taking a meal together.

Neither they nor we are perfect community. We get mad at the people who throw their napkins in the yard, who litter the bushes and porch with cigarette butts, who take a second or third bowl of soup and then don't eat it all. We bring with us our ideas of how things ought to be. At the Soup Kitchen we learn, if we are fortunate, that things are not always perfect or controllable, that other ways of doing and being are as good as our ways.

At the suggestion of the person who sounded the call to start a soup kitchen, we began by serving supper four nights a week. As we talked of expanding to seven days a week, our original visionary - an architect named Jim who renovated old houses and whose wife was our first and best cook - thought we would enable people to avoid taking responsibility for their lives. He wanted to cut back to three nights a week and gracefully stepped out in the face of unanimous opinion to do more, not less.

We struggled with this ``enabling'' problem. People from social-service agencies told us that we had to have rules, that we weren't doing people a favor by not having minimum requirements for a person to eat supper. Many agencies require social security numbers, require evidence of job-hunting, evidence of proper management of whatever limited resources a person might have.

We only wanted to give hungry people another place to get a free meal besides the City Mission, a good organization with, however, a religious agenda for its clients.

So our only rule, then and now, is that you can eat if you are not causing trouble to the other diners. Our job is simply to provide good warm food and a hospitable atmosphere. We hope that someday we'll have a trained person available to help people with housing, medical, legal problems.

We work to provide a safe environment for the diners. Being homeless and poor is not just a matter of not having a roof over your head. It's just as important to be safe not only from the cold but from other people.

The diners make their own safe community by shunning the obnoxious drunks, ignoring or bossing rowdy children, allowing the withdrawn person to sit in her or his own silence, laughing and talking across the room, the intent of their words clear to all.

None of the Soup Kitchen crew are trained as social workers. We handle drunks and troublemakers on an ad hoc basis. Occasionally the police come, in both uniforms and plainclothes, looking for runaways, chasing shoplifters.

Upset at what we considered police intrusion of our ``safe space,'' we set up a meeting with the police officer in charge of our neighborhood, his captain, and a lawyer from the county attorney's office. We had a good talk and heard each other. We want their help, yet we don't want their presence to frighten the supper community.

The diners let us know right away if we serve food they don't like. Some are grateful and some are tired of the fare. One told me: ``After eating in soup kitchens for two years, you get kind of sick of beans.'' Hungry people are not always interested in how nutritious beans are - it's easy enough for those of us who are financially comfortable to wax eloquent about high-protein soup.

Our Soup Kitchen motto, remembered occasionally, is the words of St. Vincent de Paul: ``It is only by feeling your love that the poor will forgive you for the gifts of bread.''

We more often think of the experience of Henry Nouwen, a Dutch priest and theologian, of going to minister to the poor in South America and realizing that he had more to learn from them than they from him.

Our righteous middle-class selves confront our own poverty and learn from people less addicted to possessions and power than we are. They are our teachers. In that grace we are one, servers and diners, community one hour a day over supper.

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