“It wasn’t my finest moment,” I told the kids. Juan and Crystel were eating at our kitchen island.
Juan looked up briefly. “I was thinking about that,” he said.
Crystel just smiled. She likes a faulty mother.
Jody was gone for the weekend.
Our family volunteers at Loaves and Fishes at Wood Lake Lutheran church once month. Loaves and Fishes is a free meal program that has served those in need across Minnesota since 1981. We’ve been volunteering once a month for three years. “It’s our church,” I tell the kids. For various reasons, we haven’t found a traditional home church. “Church is about giving and receiving, and this is what our family does,” I further explained.
The evening before was our ‘church’ night. When we arrived to volunteer, I was disheartened to see that the cook had changed. I don’t know why that would surprise me. It’s less turnover then I have at work. This would have only been the third cook in three years. That’s not so bad. I just wasn’t ready for it. The cook is a non-profit hired chef. The chef plans menus, orders food and manages the volunteers, who sign up online as I did.
Juan, Crystel, and I put on our aprons and hairnets. I asked the twenty-something cook what he’d like us to do.
Juan turned to me and said, “What did he say?”
“We are going to serve coffee.”
His eyes lit up. “All three of us?” His voice was full of hope.
The last time we were at ‘church’, I let Juan skip out and go home to finish a homework assignment. Wood Lake Lutheran Church is only three blocks from our home. There was plenty of volunteers and he wasn’t being particularly helpful that evening. Tonight, I had told them before we arrived that if anyone left early, this time it would be Crystel. It was her turn. That was my mistake. Allowing Juan and Crystel to leave early. After all, this was church. We were here for the sermon.
Most times there is a shortage of volunteers and there isn’t even a question of leaving early. Everyone has a job. Everyone is needed. I often had pointed this out to Juan and Crystel, “What if we wouldn’t have come tonight? Who would have helped with dishes? Or served? Or cleaned up?”
Juan knew what it meant if three of us were going to serve coffee.
“You know,” he started. “I know it’s Crystel’s turn to leave early and I’m okay with that. But maybe, just maybe, you could serve coffee by yourself?”
“We’ll see,” I said.
A finer moment.
There were five servers on the line and one person in back to wash dishes. I left Juan and Crystel to serve coffee while I went in back to dry dishes. After a flood of people went through the line to be served, I came back to check on Juan and Crystel.
Crystel raised her eyebrows. “Just wait,” I said. “I’m going to have something to eat and we’ll see.”
I regarded the five volunteers on the serving line standing with a utensil in hand or using the counter as support. I got my tray and sat down.
“Okay, Crystel,” I said. “You can leave.”
She jumped up and was gone.
“What about me?” Juan asked. “Look, they’re not doing anything.” He nodded to the servers.
I had already noticed them and it was starting to irritate me. The young people on the line were probably fulfilling a service learning requirement for college. They weren’t real volunteers … like us. They needed to be here. They were getting something out of it.
From where I sat, I watched the clean dishes pile up because there wasn’t anyone drying and putting away. I served the occasional person who wanted coffee, milk, or water. The pile of dishes continued to grow. It occurred to me that if I wouldn’t have let Juan and Crystel leave that I could have been back there helping. Now I was bound to my station.
When I got home, I startled the children. They looked at the time.
“You’re done early?” They both said at once.
“No. I left.”
“I left.” Even as I said it, I was wondering, who does that? Who leaves a job they volunteered for just because they got mad that people weren’t helping? If you’re a volunteer, aren’t you a volunteer because you love giving back? Because you love to be of service?
“Volunteers were just standing there, and dishes were piling up in back and I decided that I wasn’t going to dry them. I just left.”
Juan and Crystel didn’t say anything.
It took me twenty-four hours, but I realized that we had gotten away from the message, the spirit of volunteering, of giving back.
“Guys, no one goes home early anymore. No matter how many volunteers come,” I said. “It’s what it is. It’s our church.”