Monday, January 19, 2009

MLK: A Day of Service

My conscience pricked by appeals from our soon-to-be President and First Lady, I could not let this day pass without some act of service. My own was a small one, but I found that it meant something to me. I went to the grocery store and filled a box with cans and durable goods, then drove them over to what I had found advertised on the Internet as a "Food Bank" in Hollywood. It turned out not to be. I arrived, perplexed, at the appropriate intersection and cast about for the address. A car wash, a repair shop, a greasy spoon restaurant...

Finding a place in the small parking lot, I asked my neighbor parker if she knew about the food bank. Her car was a disaster, with two dogs in the front seat along with the contents of what appeared to be a homeless person's shopping cart. The woman was large--obese, I guess you'd say, to be truthful--and unwashed, but cheerful and well-spoken. But anyway, no, she had not heard of a food bank hereabouts, and was interested to know why I'd be looking for one. I explained my mission. "Oh, that's nice," she said.

The greasy spoon restaurant had a notice informing me that it was closed--and it looked thoroughly abandoned. Heavily barred windows, and a screen door that could have passed for the entrance to a bank vault, leaving nowhere for the knuckles to place a knock. No bell, either. I was about to give up hope for the completion of my good deed for the day when I was approached by a very dark-skinned man whose grin bared teeth that made me wince. "What are you looking for?" he asked. I explained, again, my mission. "No food bank here," he said, but conceded in short order that he was the cook for an operation that prepared meals, here, for the homeless, to be transported later to a distribution center. "Then," I said, "you could use the groceries I brought?" I had decided, by this time, from his slightly odd accent, that he must be either West Indian or Haitian. "Oh, yeah," he said.

I fetched my cardboard box of goodies from the car. Cans of vegetables and legumes, chili beef, chicken and tuna, packages of pasta. This being my first foray into the land of food banks, I'd been unsure what to bring--but these did seem, to my relief, like useful ingredients for a robust meal. My greeter agreed. He had warmed to me by this time, and became quite voluble in his explanations. For the first time, I began to feel that I had done some small thing that would benefit others, an act of service that did not leave me feeling utterly vain and foolish.

I drove home with a lift in the heart, glad for having done it. I recalled the times that I would go downtown with Sarah, then still a teenager, and we would work together in the soup kitchen, chopping onions with copious tears, and washing great, greasy tubs after the preparation of the food--and the sense of elated satisfaction that accompanied us on the way home. I am grateful to Obama for having nudged me into making this small gesture, and for having reminded me of the many who are out there doing greater deeds by far--as well as the many, many people who need them, desperately. I am grateful to have been reminded of my intention to find ways of being of service in the world.

Co-incidentally--well, perhaps not really by co-incidence--I was surprised to see, in my inbox this morning, a name I had not seen since I was ten or twelve years old, a school mate from the boys' boarding school to which I was sent at a very early age, during World War II. Could it be...? I wondered. And it was. I remember Ben as an exceptionally kind boy amidst the cruelty of the pre-adolescent masculine mob, and was not surprised to find out that he had later gone into the ministry and spent his life in service in various parts of the world. Past retirement age now, he found me on the Internet--wonderful, isn't it, how that can happen?--and wrote to see if I was the same Peter he had known back then. What a delight! And something of a pang, with the realization that my own journey has been so internal, so disconnected, in many ways, from the needs of those with whom I share this planet. I admire my friend for his dedication, and am happy that I chose to find some way to get the taste of it today.

Happy Inauguration Day, tomorrow, friends. Metta to Obama and his family, and metta to the rest of us, at a time of need!


citizen of the world said...

Good for you. I did my small thing, also, but think really no act is too small.

They call him James Ure said...

Good on you!! I'm so excited for this inauguration. I'm going to record it on my DVR to later transfer onto a DVD to save for posterity. :)

mandt said...

What a genuine pleasure to celebrate the life of that great human being!