And how are the children? A true story.

The teenage girl first eyed the man through the concession window. He lifted the garbage can lid then set it back. He looked familiar to The Girl. Loaves and Fishes, she thought. The one who vacuumed the floor at the end of the night. Wore a green fedora hat.

His red bike overflowing with garbage, junk, and plastic bottles leaned against a column.

The Girl turned to her friend the Nordic Skier and whispered urgently, “He’s trying to get garbage.” Nordic Skier barely shrugged her shoulders. The Girl said with more emphasis, “Looking for food.”

Nordic Skier yawned. I’m not here for it, her tired posture messaged.

The man was grandpa-old. Wore a plaid long sleeve shirt, long jeans though it was a warm summer afternoon.

The Girl got busy with customers. She and her two friends worked at the refreshment stand. Ice cream, pizza, coffee and soda. Not much, really. Nothing you could find in the garbage except maybe pizza crust.

A chair scraped the floor, and the Nordic Skier was suddenly next to The Girl at the sink. Nordic Skier turned her body away, covered her mouth. “He’s drinking out of the containers.”

Finding no garbage outside, the man had moved inside to the garbage can in the corner. He had found melted ice cream in throwaway cups and bowls.

The Girl’s sigh was audible through the black face mask she wore. Her eyes threw serious shade. Like you woke now? She gazed over her friend’s shoulder to the seating area. The man was lifting a Styrofoam bowl and letting liquid drip into his mouth. “Oh my gosh, go offer him something.”

Nordic Skier’s eyebrows raised. “I’m the one that told you. Beside you’re the one that wants to help people.” She furrowed her brows. “That’s your career, periodt.”

They both turned to their other friend who was standing near the ice-cream display freezer. She was the smallest, youngest, and quietest of the three of them. A Cross Country runner. Not the fastest. Not the slowest. Observant. Steady. Strong. Formidable.

“You go,” said The Girl.

Their very quiet friend, responded, “I fully support your idea, but I’m not going to do it.”

The Girl barked at her.

The diminutive friend growled back.

“Fine!” The Girl dried her hands.

The man walked towards the door. The Girl followed him. “Sir, sir.”

He kept walking. Big Yikes. The Girl didn’t want the family who just came into the seating area to observe her struggling to talk to the man. She turned back to the refreshment stand. Nordic Skier was making a violent slashing motion across her neck and pointing forcefully to the man.

The family moved to the concession window away from The Girl.

The Girl steeled herself. “Sir, sir. Would you like us to give you some food?”

The man stopped and leaned his ear towards the girl, tapping his ear.

“Would you like some free ice-cream?”

He placed his palms in prayer.

The Girl dished out a scoop of rumba cherry because old people like rumba cherry, and a scoop of chocolate because everyone likes chocolate, and finally a scoop of rich and famous, cause, yeah, why not?

He sat down at a table. The Girl brought him his ice-cream. He bowed in prayer.

Nordic Skier said, “Oh my gosh. I’ve got the other half of the pizza I haven’t eaten.” Then she thought of the ten-dollar bill that she had found on the floor a few hours earlier. Serendipitous, for sure. She taped the ten-dollar bill to the pizza box.

While the man was eating, The Girl took a KIND bar that Nordic Skier had taken from her backpack and tossed away because the unopened wrapper had gooey stuff on it. “What are you doing? People need this. They are starving. Right here in our own town.” Nordic Skier and The Girl gave the man the KIND bar.

The man bowed in thanks.

A couple of days later, The Girl saw the man. He was waiting at the door. The Girl was tending to customers and couldn’t approach him.

The man came to the window. “She’s paying for me,” he said softly. He nodded to a woman. The woman shook her head in agreement.

“Three scoops,” the man said.

“The Usual?” The Girl asked.

He smiled.

Periodt.

 

I Confess…

Unity Minister, Aunt Jo, at Juan Jose’s and Crystel’s christening ceremony at our home.

On Sundays, I could be sitting in a pew. I’m not. I’m writing to you. Crystel is on social media. Juan Jose’ is sleeping. Jody has left to do maintenance on police cars as her volunteer job as a police reserve officer, and then she’ll visit her mother.

Sometimes, I feel guilty about not taking my kids to church.

During the holiday season, when Crystel was little, she’d holler out, “Look, there’s the little people,” when she’d spot a manger in a yard. Spotting the little people became a game we played in the car, as well as eyeing left over door wreaths that lasted well into the summer.

Aunt Amie blessing Juan Jose’ and Crystel

The guilt or the want for the children to create an image of God to their own liking propelled Jody and me to the front door of a popular church in Minneapolis. The preschoolers attended Sunday school while we listened to the service. That was fine until I found myself writing poetry during the mass. Why do that at church when you can do it at home?

We soon joined another church that we thought would be our forever church. We became hospitality hosts and also taught Sunday school. It was teaching Sunday school where I learned that I didn’t like 5th graders much. Then our kids were 5th graders and we were teaching them.

Uncle Scott and Aunt Ann

What pushed Jody and me toward the exit door, was having the feeling that we ‘had’ to hold hands and that we ‘had’ to hug people when it came that time in the service. I didn’t mind holding hands and hugging, it was the fact that I didn’t feel as if I had a choice to say, “No”.

When we told Juan Jose’ and Crystel that we were going to quit going to church, they beat us to the car.

Our church is volunteering at Loaves and Fishes once a month. I explained to the kids that our church was about giving and we are giving of our service. They haven’t complained since they know the alternative is finding and attending a church service on Sundays.

Uncle Marty, Aunt Kathy, and Aunt Pat

Sometimes, I still feel guilty. Are they finding God at Loaves and Fishes? Among the homeless? The poor? The people who come for a handout or companionship? Juan Jose’ and Crystel serve coffee, food, or help wash and dry dishes. Crystel may play piano or flute.

Crystel recently asked us what religion we were. I paused, searching for the right answer. “We respect all religions,” I told her. “That wasn’t my question,” she said bluntly.

“Well,” I said. “We aren’t anything.”

She asked about confirmation. Several of her friends will be confirmed this year. I told her that she could be, too, if she wanted to join a church and take classes. She shook her head no. She just liked the idea of getting the money you receive when you get confirmed.

Blessing for Crystel from Aunt Amie

“You were christened,” I said. “Your Aunt Jo christened you and Juan Jose’. Your chosen aunts and uncles gave you a blessing.”

Blessing for Juan Jose’ from Aunt Amie

My hope this Sunday is that my children will recognise God in themselves and others, whether it is Mama Jody visiting her mother, the folks at Loaves and Fishes, or in the people who aren’t anything.

 

 

It Wasn’t My Finest Moment

“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.

“Go ahead.”

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.”

“What?!?”

“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.”