Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Happy Birthday

I celebrated a milestone birthday on February 2. My birthday tradition has been to go to my hometown of Lawrence, Kansas and serve food at LINK (Lawrence Interdenominational Nutrition Kitchen) which serves the homeless community as well as the working poor. My friend Greg is the coordinator of this facility. Once in high school he teased me so relentlessly about my haircut that I was practically cloaked in self-consciousness until it grew out.  Before we began serving food on Saturday he announced my birthday and age to the community, clearly little about him has changed. However, there is something incredibly humbling about having the homeless community sing happy birthday to you as they stand in a huge circle with the kitchen staff holding hands.  My birthday tradition is not my charitable act for the year nor is really an act of kindness on my part. I don’t help to prepare the meals and sometimes I don’t even help clean afterward. I participate because I need to remember who I am.

The Lawrence community is a sort of an oasis of liberalism in the red state of Kansas. Early settlers came from New England to get an anti-slavery foothold on what was then new territory. The people of the nearby state of Missouri wanted Kansas to be a slave state and because Lawrence was the headquarters for the Free State party the area became a hotbed of bloodshed. In 1864 Lawrence, Kansas became the home of the first university in the Free State. It is because of this strong historical foundation of liberty and equality that Lawrence maintains its liberal environment. LINK is able to provide meals 4 days a week almost entirely with the help of volunteer workers and food donations provided by the Lawrence community. Another Lawrence organization, The Jubilee Café provides some meals on opposite days.

LINK hosts some community characters that warm my heart. There is a man who might be 35 or could be 45. His face is a bit weathered by the elements. When he smiles, which is often, his face is covered in beautiful, craggy, lines. On Saturday he wore bright pink culottes but on occasion I have seen him wear the sort of blue coverall that one might see worn by a garage mechanic. He normally pushes a stroller with a large baby doll or sometimes pushes a shopping cart carrying a manikin that he call’s Cheryl sporting a sorority tee shirt and Jayhawk sweatpants. Although he is sometimes the victim of cruel jokes played by college kids, Cheryl was recently kidnapped and held ransom, the Lawrence community is a safe place for him.  

The first time I served at LINK I was surprised to see that some meal recipients were very much not what I expected. One recipient in particular wore a clean, black logod polo type shirt and khaki pants. His blond hair and sweet smile make it seem that he might have just popped in for lunch from an IT job. However, the third and fourth time I saw him he was wearing what was apparently the same khaki pants and black polo. Some of the recipients are what one would imagine. Their dull eyes indicate a complete loss of hope, their fingers are stained yellow and their clothes threadbare. One woman was clean and well groomed, her skin and hair healthy but completely toothless and without any prosthetic teeth to conceal that fact. Dentistry for the uninsured usually results in the removal of teeth that might otherwise be treated. 

I suppose that the most difficult to see are children who don’t make eye contact as they choose their entrée. They are old enough to know the social stigma of eating at a “soup kitchen” but hungry enough to find the warm food appealing and experienced enough to know that this could be their only meal of the day. I watched as those who served with me coaxed them using warm smiles to have some vegetables, some bread or two desserts. I try to imagine my own children’s faces in the same situation.

This morning as I clean out my refrigerator, I have an awareness of the waste. I scrape the remains of last week’s fish into the garbage, I find berries covered in a moldy fuzz in my produce drawer that were purchased weeks ago and forgotten. I guiltily tip them into the trash and toss their plastic container into recycling. I am surrounded by abundance, an abundance of love, of my basic needs, I have a warm house, a car, health insurance, a job that I love and that allows me to work from home and greet my children as they return home school. My children don’t have to take their meals with their eyes downcast, embarrassed to ask for just a “bit more”.
My birthday tradition helps me to remember what I think the early Lawrence, Kansas Settlers knew when they chose the life of abolitionists. I believe that they knew that regardless of our geography, our skin color or our place in life, we are all connected and we are all one. I want to remember that I am the man with the manikin named, “Cheryl”. I am the young woman with no teeth, I am the man with dull eyes who self-medicates with alcohol to numb out the pain, I am the single mother who sells sexual favors to make ends meet, my child is the hungry child who is embarrassed and uncomfortable. I don’t want to forget that.