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Give and Get Real
By Maureen Krivo

“What is provision?” we were asked. As I pondered the question, my eyes moved up to the homemade sign embellished with bright colors and festive decorations hanging from the ceiling. “Hallelujah!” was written across it, as if it were shouting out to us with joy and laughter. It seemed out of place among its plain and simple surroundings. I felt out of place, too, come to think of it. I wondered what was in store for us that morning. As far as I was concerned I was simply along for the ride, curious about this “residential” Christian community and the impact it is having on homelessness in downtown Atlanta. In short, I figured I would be working in a soup kitchen for a couple of hours. I glanced around at the circle of faces gathered in the small area between the kitchen and the dining room of the Open Door Community. Some I knew, some I did not, but all were strikingly different. Beyond the obvious differences of race and gender, we had indeed come together that morning as quite a collection of backgrounds, experiences, views, and expectations. We ran the gamut from doctor to housewife, from pastor to the formerly homeless.

In a single-file line we were ushered down the narrow staircase to the basement. We regrouped around a large pile of bags that appeared to be filled with bread, donations from various businesses and restaurants around town. Eric Garbison, a resident of the Open Door Community and our tour guide at present, motioned to the bulky heap with a sweep of his arm and asked again, “What is provision?” Everyone was pensive for a moment, no doubt trying to anticipate the “right” answer. A few bold souls spoke out: “Compassion.” “Manna.” “Excessive waste,” (that one came out as part exclamation, part question). Eric nodded solemnly and repeated our answers back to us. Then he told us to look inside the bags. Mold and rot stared back unabashedly as it was unveiled. We gaped in stunned silence, repulsed and appalled. From deep inside some of the bags, flies and gnats began bursting into freedom with such revolting gaiety it was as if they were mocking the gravity of the situation. Eric broke the silence by simply stating, “As you can see, no one sacrificed to give this bread.” I braced myself for a didactical tirade, but it did not come. It wasn’t necessary, as the image before us lunged straight at our hearts undeterred and unchecked. But before we could sink into the mire of anger, shame, and guilt, Eric turned the conversation into a very personal, and very valuable, life lesson. He could have seized the opportunity to launch into a “shame on us” speech, highlighting our western culture’s glorification of extravagance, or innate sense of entitlement. Instead, through an honest conversation amongst the group members, we learned that we, as a culture, have come to depend on “the system” more than we depend on God. We learned that giving by merely jettisoning our excess out of abundance is indeed a gift given, but it does nothing to transform our hearts and our lives. Sacrificial giving, on the other hand, brings us closer to dependence on God, closer to our purpose. Experiencing the cost of sacrifice is the key. I’ll think about that the next time I’m tempted to put that shirt with a hole in it in the give-away pile. And I’ll think about that the next time I purchase a new shirt, too.

Although our encounter in the basement had been brief, there was an air of camaraderie as we climbed back up the stairs. It was nearly time to begin serving the soup, so after a short and succinct informational session, we manned our assigned stations. I took a moment to check in with myself. I was nervous. I had stepped out of my comfortable little world into one that felt dark and foreboding, and utterly hopeless. Never before had I actually spoken with a homeless person, much less served him or her. Would they gaze at me in my stark white shirt with seething indignation? Would they look at me at all? Would they do something to frighten me? Would the stereotypes hold up? I glanced again at the “Hallelujah” sign, taking strange comfort in the irony is presented.

As the guests began streaming in, I thought they looked more like a march of mankind than anything else. Most were men, but there were some women, too. Black, white, Hispanic, old, young – a seemingly endless parade of just plain people…like me. Some smiled at me; some never took their eyes off the floor. Most expressed their gratitude, and I wondered if it was more for the food or for the dignity and respect with which it was served. More than once I was humbled when a guest blessed me.

And so it went. I watched over the six tables, waiting for raised soup bowls. That was the signal for needing refills. When I saw one go up I would dart over and take it to be refilled. Occasionally a bread basket would go up, and I would replace it with one stacked high with bread. The guests ate as much soup, and drank as much water and sweet tea, as they wanted. There was bread and peanut butter on every table so that they could make sandwiches to take with them. Volunteers lovingly packed them in sandwich bags…sack lunches to go.

We served around 150 guests that day. I wasn’t much of a waitress, but I was grateful for the chance to try my hand at it. After the last guest left, we cleaned up, and then settled down for our own soup lunch together with some of the residents. The food before me was clean and fresh. My mind wondered back to our earlier experience in the basement, and I was choked by guilt. How dare I partake of this good food when others needed it so desperately! But I remembered part of the conversation from the basement: It’s not about distribution, it’s about dependence. Ah yes, we are all children of God, and we all need something, whether it’s food, or acceptance, or peace. There is always a place for us at the table of grace. It’s the only place where, like the song says, the plate’s never empty and the cup’s always full.

Grace clearly abounds at the Open Door Community. Founded in 1981 in partnership with the Greater Atlanta Presbytery, it is located in an old apartment building near downtown Atlanta. It is a residential Christian community inspired by the Catholic Worker Movement, which was begun in 1933 by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. The residents come together from widely diverse backgrounds, holding in common their commitment to offering hospitality to the homeless and ministering to those in prison. Twice a week, the community offers breakfast and soup-kitchen lunches to the poor and marginalized in Atlanta. In addition, they provide showers, a change of clothes, and free medical and foot care clinics. The residents, with the support of many volunteers, also minister to both those in prison and their families. Every month, families are given the free opportunity through the Open Door Community to travel to the Hardwick Prison in central Georgia and visit loved ones incarcerated there.

As advocates for both the homeless and those in prison, the Open Door Community depends on volunteers in myriad ways, including serving breakfast, working in the soup kitchen, driving families to prison visits, making dinner for the residents, providing sandwiches for the homeless, collecting needed items from t-shirts to toiletries, answering the phone and door, and giving out toiletries, towels, and changes of clothing twice a week.

If you would like to step out of the realm of comfort and familiarity in order to learn more about the world around you, as well as yourself, I highly recommend volunteering in some capacity for the Open Door Community. You can do this by contacting Chuck Harris, the Volunteer Coordinator, at 404-875-1472 or odcvolunteer@bellsouth.net. But before you dive in, I also highly recommend spending some time learning more about the community (www.opendoorcommunity.org) and the Catholic Worker tradition on which it is based (www.catholicworker.org). If you are looking for a stint in a soup kitchen, look elsewhere. If you are willing to be affected by the transforming power of an authentic Christian community in action, by all means, call them. Oh, and enjoy the soup!

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