I’m aware that my presentation needs work. My ankle-length, winter white sleeping bag coat is smeared with more than two seasons of grime, and even if it were brand new, L.L. Bean sure wasn’t going for sleek and sophisticated when they designed it baggy enough to fully zipper my last pregnancy to full term. And that was when I was carrying twins.
The day I arrived at the unmarked warehouse that is La Collaborativa Food Pantry in Chelsea, I tried to put some cheer and confidence in my voice to make up for what I lacked in appearance, but when I approached the two women on the front step and asked,
“Is this the food pantry?” one of them gave me a double take and, hesitating momentarily out of politeness, asked,
“Are you looking for food?”
“No,” I replied, remaining pleasant so as not to undermine their purpose, to affirm that it’s not shameful to accept handouts. “I’m from Highrock Church. I signed up to volunteer to pack boxes today. That is, if you could use the help?”
I had first heard of the need two months back, through my pastor’s wife who had rallied the moms ministry to act on behalf of this operation that had lost its USDA sponsorship in late 2020. This organization usually feeds 8,000 people per week, which meant that 8,000 people were now searching for another way to find food...or going hungry. My pastor’s wife, brimming over with compassion, quickly organized collection locations in 13 communities in the Greater Boston area. We moms were asked to add a selective list of items to our grocery lists and then deliver the foodstuffs to the designated drop box nearest to our homes.
Several weeks went by before I jumped on the bandwagon. I had seen the weekly emails, the updates of multiple vans of food collecting and delivering hundreds of pounds of food each week, the generosity and collectively mammoth-sized offering of dozens of moms working together to support one of the communities hardest hit by COVID. I saw the updates and somehow couldn’t get past my cynicism that this would make any difference. Why should we be the ones to fix this? If we keep delivering food, will they ever figure out how to get it themselves?
And then, a few weeks ago, something happened that I can only explain by calling it God’s intervention. I had been wallowing in my need to escape -- to escape my tiny home in the middle of a gray winter, to escape the uncertainty of COVID, to escape the soul-crushing isolation that resulted from the combination of all of those factors. I had been searching for a new home for my family, but when an opportunity fell through, instead of disappointment, I was surprised to feel enormous relief. I heard a reprimanding voice in my head, the kind that not only puts you in your place but speaks the wisdom you’ve been craving. It said,
“You still live here.”
Weary of Zoom meetings being my only way to see the faces of friends from my pre-COVID past, I had stopped attending my church moms’ small group sometime this past fall. I didn’t want to commiserate over pandemic woes and strive to make the best of it by substituting staples like full time school attendance with alternative activities like socially-distanced snowshoeing. I was ready to seek that full time school in a new community and imagine a new life for my family. I was so deep into the fantasy that I couldn’t function in my daily life.
The wise voice told me I needed to step back into my life.
Shortly after that, I signed into the weekly small group meeting and enjoyed the discussion of drawing closer to God through implementing spiritual disciplines, like fasting, rest, prayer, Bible study, confession, solitude, simplicity, fellowship and service. I shared my recent unexpected relief at losing out on an opportunity to leave my situation, and as people shared their own stories, I reflected privately that I was glad to feel called to spend time with God through service work.
It had been a long time since I had participated in a service project. Perhaps since last summer. Sure, we still tithe and give monthly and occasionally to charitable organizations, but the last time I could remember intentionally participating in a service project was following my kids’ Vacation Bible School curriculum last June. I wrote about this already on this blog, how I wasn’t sure we had what it takes to give when we were running on empty ourselves. I also felt tentative about participating in projects because the overall message during COVID was “Stay home”. Earlier on this blog I wrote about seeking alternative fight strategies when our usual service work was disrupted, but thanks to that voice, I felt like I had waited long enough. I now felt moved to act.
I added to my grocery list non-perishable items to donate to the food pantry in Chelsea, and I visited the SignUp Genius and, enlisting a friend to help out alongside me, I marked my name down for three shifts of packing boxes of food, boxes that other volunteers would later hand out to those in need.
My first shift was cancelled due to a snowstorm, so a week after that I finally showed up on the doorstep, prepared to appear foolish and remain malleable in order to be used in whatever way was most helpful.
The ladies standing there smiled at me from behind their masks and took me inside, explaining a bit about the facility. I quickly realized this was one of those situations where I could have benefited from studying Spanish in school instead of French, but at least no one seemed to mind. We mimed to each other and did the best we could.
Except, when I wanted to double check that we really were supposed to throw away hundreds of pounds of meat that appeared stably frozen but was past the sell by date. Or when we were asked to sort a random assortment of non-perishable foodstuffs. If I understood how the food was distributed, perhaps I would be able to better discern whether to group Asian noodles with rice or whether baking powder should go with cake mix. And bottom line, I thought there would be so much work that I wouldn’t have time for ridiculous questions like these about the minutiae of it all.
Somewhere in the middle of transferring wholesale linguine by the one-pound handfuls into individual Ziploc baggies while discussing the pros and cons of city versus suburban living with another English-speaking volunteer, I started to wonder if I was helping at all. I couldn’t see the bigger picture, and I couldn’t communicate to learn more.
When I left at the end of my shift, I felt a little let down, a little discouraged. Was this what service was? Drudgery that feels like it’s getting you nowhere? It’s funny how I started the morning thinking I was going to do something useful with my hands but that I ended it wondering how any reasonable person could have thanked me for showing up that day.
A few days ago, I was grateful to hear this reminder from my pastor during a Sunday sermon: The service work we do is a form of worship. If we remember that we serve others in order to serve God, then we don’t have to feel let down when the people who receive our gifts, like our offerings of food and time, might not use them as wisely or efficiently as possible. We don’t need to put qualifiers on our efforts. A few years ago, a mom in our family small group put it this way: if you feel moved to give, God will honor that gift. It was something I would remember when my book club read The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates and criticized her efforts and even the efforts she could have highlighted with the writing of her book.
From here I understand my task is to fight the human tendency toward cynicism that tugs at my heart and tempts me to push my cart past those items in the grocery store that are in high demand at the food pantry. Whether by contributing a few more bags of rice, or whether by showing up with willing hands on site, I can see God working through it all, through reinstating the connection to the USDA Farmers to Families program, through the faithfulness of the suburban mom minivan drivers, and through the perseverance of the on site volunteers.
There is a season for everything, and while I’m here in this season, I turn to this work, remembering that at least one of my feet remains firmly planted, right here.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.