A Cherry Street missionWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | email@example.com
I parked at the Cherry Street Mission building and walked to the 17th Street entrance, where a man asked how he could help me. I told him I was there to help a church group with dinner service, and he told me I was at the wrong location; I needed to be at the kitchen on Madison Street.
A man standing at the door said he was walking that way and could guide me there. I asked him how far it was; I was not concerned with the walking distance, but I did not know how late I would be there on that April 15 night and was not comfortable with the idea of walking back after dark and leaving my car in a restricted lot.
I told the man, who introduced himself as Doug, to hop in my car and we could drive to the kitchen. It was a short trip and there wasn’t much time for conversation, but he mentioned he was suffering from back problems and appreciated the ride.
I parked in the lot at the Madison Street kitchen, as dozens of people milled around. The area surrounding the kitchen building is a shocking ring of abandoned, crumbling buildings. If you were dropped off in that desolate area, you would never guess that just blocks away, thousands of people were taking their seats for a baseball game in a well-maintained stadium, comfortable with plastic cups of beer and overflowing handfuls of popcorn and hot dogs.
I walked through a short hallway and into a large dining room, where scores of people were already waiting. I located the kitchen, where several men were preparing to serve a dinner to the Cherry Street Mission guests.
I found Norm Carlton, the man from St. Michael’s in the Hills Episcopal Church, who had invited me to help his group serve dinner.
His men’s group, “Mondays at Mike’s,” was serving food prepared by Ida’s Catering, paid for by an offering at the church’s Easter service. The men in the church group were setting up various food stations — a salad area, a place to set fresh-baked dinner rolls, a line to plate golden-brown roasted chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy and green beans. The kitchen smelled like any suburban home on Thanksgiving afternoon. A few of us were asked to go back to the parking lot to unload cases of bottled water. I would be lying if I denied glancing at my car to make sure it was still in one piece.
Salads and bombs
Back inside, we donned green aprons and clear plastic gloves and began finding ways to be useful. I shook hands with a man named Joe, and we started taking salads to the 100-plus people waiting in the dining area. As others began plating the hot food so it could be taken to the round tables at 5 p.m., Joe and I tried to stay one step ahead with the salads.
There was no group prayer, but several groups said grace at their tables as food was placed in front of them.
Along one wall, a gigantic Mitsubishi television (surely they do not make them like that anymore; with wheels and a steering column, it could pass for a Fiat) showed continuous coverage of the bombings at the Boston Marathon. The plumes of smoke were shown on a nonstop loop, but few of the people in the room were paying attention; they were there to eat.
As I placed small plastic foam bowls of salad in front of everyone, I tried to determine if there were any such thing as a composite of how “homeless” people look. I had no way of knowing who in the crowd was homeless and who just needed a good meal, but the mind goes where it goes, and that was the broad stroke, unjustified label in my head.
What do hungry, homeless people look like? They are white. They are black. They are Latino. They are men. They are women. They are thin. They are fat. Some are clean in nice clothes. Some are not clean and wear worn clothes. Some are polite and smile and say “Thank you.” Some are sullen and withdrawn and demanding. It wasn’t much different from navigating a crowd at a Mud Hens game. If the Cherry Street Mission diners were transplanted to Fifth Third Field, most of them could walk the concourse and blend right in.
I wish I could have sat at each table and collected stories, drawing sadness and loss from each person like a pain eater. References to Christ surrounded the diners, and while the group from St. Michael’s embodied His mission, I wondered how much comfort that would provide the guests as their bellies emptied and they sought their next meal.
Seconds and thirds
I did notice patterns of behavior. The older the diner was, the more likely that person was to express thanks for the hot food. The younger the recipient was, the more likely that person was to skirt civility, demanding an extra salad or bottle of water. It was clear there was plenty of food on hand, so I took extra salads to those who asked.
As soon as salads were served, we started helping serve plates of hot food. The St. Michael’s volunteers were lined up at the serving window to take two plates at a time to the tables, but I did not notice their organized approach at first and just clumsily went to the window to grab plates and take them out.
As plates were cleared, Carlton and other volunteers began walking through the room with ice cream sundae cups, vanilla with either chocolate or strawberry topping; they carried small wooden spoons in plastic wrappers.
The crowd was enthusiastic for the hot food, but the reception for the ice cream was intense. Hands flew in the air and people surrounded the men handing out the plastic cups as if they were dispensing cash money. It occurred to me that ice cream of any kind must be a rare treat for the Cherry Street Mission diners, and I was impressed that the Mondays at Mike’s group had thought about that.
A few latecomers were served, and then a Cherry Street Mission manager called for attention and asked who wanted seconds. Two-dozen hands went up, so we began a second wave of serving. One man had a young girl in a stroller, a pretty girl about 3 years old; I offered to bring him extra food but he waved me off, spoonfeeding her ice cream as he finished his chicken and potatoes.
On the antique Mitsubishi, plumes of smoke exploded over and over; people scattered, over and over.
The guests began to leave. Many of them resumed their silent vigil in the parking lot, sentries to the creeping decay of urban desolation. Where the rest of the people went, I cannot say.
As the flurry of activity in the kitchen subsided, cleanup began. We cleared plates, wiped down tables, stacked chairs and swept the floor. As guests left, many stopped to offer a thank you and ask if this group was hosting any other dinners in the near future. Some went to the kitchen serving window and asked for aluminum foil to wrap up leftovers; a few asked for third servings and scraped the food directly into small black containers to take with them.
The Mondays at Mike’s men worked hard and were obviously happy to serve, but there was a gravity to their countenances; it was clear there was a great deal of introspection going on and a great many blessings were being silently counted.
The entire process took less than two hours, a very small karma offering for the many blessings and good things in life. I thanked Carlton for the opportunity to help, dropped my gloves in the trash and put my apron with the other used ones in a brown grocery bag.
I walked out of the kitchen building, as dozens of people milled around in the parking lot. The area surrounding the kitchen building, that shocking ring of abandoned, crumbling buildings, did not look any more pleasant as dusk settled. Just blocks away, thousands of people were taking their seats for a baseball game in a well-maintained stadium, comfortable with plastic cups of beer and overflowing handfuls of popcorn and hot dogs.
I looked around to see if Doug needed a ride back to the 17th Street mission, but I did not see him, and I did not dawdle.
I would be lying if I denied feeling relieved when I was safely in my car, man and machine in one piece.
The guests were unknown and invisible to me before I served them food. As I scurried back to the comfort of my suburban home, I knew their faces and stories were already fading from the forefront of my mind.
I drove home, listening to news reports from Boston. I had not eaten in several hours, but I was not hungry.
A reporter on the radio said an 8-year-old boy had been killed in the Boston Marathon blasts, moments after hugging his father, who had just finished the great race. My overwhelmed mind conjured the image of a shattered, lifeless body — with the face of the pretty little girl I had tried to get extra food to.
I thought I might stop and get an ice cream treat for our little boys — one more blessing in a life overflowing with them. O
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.