Over pizza, homelessness gets a face

It was a simple act – providing dinner to homeless families – but it had a lasting impact.

"Here are the pizzas," my husband announced, stacking six pepperoni and mushroom pies in our car trunk. On my lap, a large lettuce salad tossed and turned as we made our way to the church reception hall.

"I'm starving," my eldest daughter complained, her appetite whetted by the enticing aroma of tomato sauce and melted cheese. I knew she meant nothing by this comment, but it made me wince. After all, we were on our way to serve dinner to the homeless – people who certainly know a lot more about true hunger than my children ever will.

Mother Teresa once said, "If you can't feed a hundred people, then feed just one." That night, our family had volunteered to feed eight church "guests" – homeless families – as part of the Interfaith Hospitality Network, a circle of churches that provide housing, meals, and guidance to the homeless.

I was feeling good about helping others, but a wave of apprehension rose within me as we neared the church. What would our guests think about my suburban family looking as though we'd dropped right out of a Lands' End catalog? I wondered what we would talk about. What if our girls mentioned our upcoming Florida vacation, their stuffed animal collections, or our three-car garage, bursting at the seams with bikes, scooters, and basketballs?

Inside the church hall, my husband and I set up a buffet table. "Set out the napkins," I instructed the girls.

Then I saw a young boy about my daughter's age, grinning ear to ear. "Hi there!" my husband called, returning the boy's wave. "Dinner's ready!"

Wide-eyed, my two girls watched as the boy hastily made his way toward the pizza. His mother followed, then the other family – a couple with two adult children and an infant grandchild.

"Remember to let our guests go first," I reminded my girls. But they were already standing back, staring a little too long at the reality of homelessness.

Weary from a day of job-searching, the boy's mother took time to say "hi" to us before helping her son fill his plate with pizza and salad.

The other family, a chatty bunch, extended their hands in greeting, clearly appreciative of our hospitality. I was taken aback by the weight of their load – a disabled son limped toward the dinner table and their daughter, looking not much older than a teenager, strapped her son into a highchair. Clad in an old, slightly soiled sleeper, he nibbled on chewy pizza crust, blissfully unaware of his family's struggles.

"What grade are you in?" I asked the young boy, who sat with his mother at our table.

"He's in first," his mom answered for him. She didn't seem to want to talk; yet I was uncomfortable with her silence. I chattered on about anything and everything, like the annoying chickadee outside my bedroom window – tweeting and singing, refusing to let anyone enjoy a moment of peace.

"What's your teacher's name?" I blurted out. "Do you like school?"

"I don't really like it," the boy said, smiling sheepishly.

"You might have to switch schools again soon," his mother informed him. "I don't know when, but it might have to happen."

The boy's eyes filled with protest, then resignation.

No wonder he doesn't like school, I thought. What a bad topic to bring up. I was at an uncharacteristic loss for words. After a long, awkward pause, I finally asked, "Would anyone like some apple cider?"

"I've never tried it before," the mother said, pouring herself a glass. I marveled at the sight of someone sipping their first cider, and I wondered what else I take for granted: cider and doughnuts each fall, a safe home and school for my girls, the luxury of buying six extra-large pizzas without even a second thought. Embarrassed by my own comforts, I shifted back and forth in my chair, suddenly feeling the worm of injustice squirming into consciousness.

Noticing the sweat shirt on the father at the other table, I tried to find common ground. "Hey, looks like you're a Yankee fan! Going to root for them in the playoffs?"

"Oh, no, I can't stand them," he said with a shrug. "They just gave me this shirt 'cause I didn't have a coat. It got really cold out there today."

Again, reality hit me with a wallop. This man was just thankful to have a warm shirt to wear.

Before I knew it, it was time for dessert. Over cookies and milk, my 5-year-old told silly knock-knock jokes. Her crumb-covered grin melted tensions, uniting us in laughter. Somehow, the innocence of a child was needed that night – a glimmer of God's unconditional love reflected in my daughter's eyes.

Long after the tables were cleared and the guests had headed upstairs to their cots, I felt the profound impact of that evening. This year, unlike the past, I am not too busy to dig into my cupboards and fill a grocery bag with beans, rice, and soup for the canned-food drive at my daughter's school.

When the church asks for bedding to cover the guests' cots, I find myself eagerly rummaging through my linen closet. "Let's give them the Mickey Mouse sheets," my daughter suggests. "And the kids would like my Hello Kitty ones, too."

This year, I don't walk past the "Adopt-A-Family" table after church services. Instead, I agree to buy Christmas gifts for a single mom and her seven children. As I stroll through a store, loading up my cart with Cabbage Patch dolls and Power Rangers, I see the face of those in need – a face made real to me through a simple dinner of pizza and salad.

Maya Angelou once said, "You shouldn't go through life with a catcher's mitt on both hands. You need to be able to throw something back." Unintentionally, the ball bounced right back, filling my heart with love for those less fortunate.

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