Another life time ago, my sons and I lived in Massachusetts. I was a civilian chaplain and social worker for the Department of the Army. I was also a single parent eeking out an existence for $750 per month! Needless to say, I supplemented our meager income with another meager income doing some contract social work for the state.
During the day I worked with Special Forces members and their families who were navigating the rough roads and stressors of moving between secret special ops and family life. A couple of evenings a week I worked with civilian children and families who were stuck in the revolving doors of child protective services. I had seen a lot of ugliness, been shot at, knew a lot about the factors that contributed to domestic violence and child abuse. I knew I hadn’t seen it all, but I thought I’d seen pretty much all I needed to know about the ills of society.
The other couple of nights a week and many Saturday mornings the boys and I ate at Our Father’s Table, a soup kitchen sponsored by Christ Episcopal Church. When I wasn’t filling the pulpit somewhere else, we attended Christ Church. Being the youngest adult in the congregation and having been successful elsewhere at the obligatory sentence to youth ministry, made me the best option for a teen Sunday School class. The only thing I remember about that class was how excited the kids were that we were listening to Michael Jackson! Michael Jackson’s song, Man in the Mirror was number one on the pop charts and lent itself very nicely to several biblical lessons.
So when people saw us eating at Our Father’s Table they assumed we had been volunteering. They didn’t know that eating three meals a week there was what allowed me to stretch our meager budget every month, and I still could not afford oil to heat our old apartment.
Almost everyone who ate at Our Father’s Table were homeless, mentally ill, or the very poor of Fitchburg. The majority was predominately male. I was a social worker, of course I knew about homelessness, mental illness, and the causes of poverty. Eating at the same table, personalized their stories and showed me how little I really knew about anything.
We were the only family who ate at Our Father’s Table and, therefore, the table that most wanted to sit! Establishing where you sat in the beginning, set your place each time you ate there, so we generally ate with the same twelve guys. Even though we were eating in a unique setting, I still wanted my young sons to observe table manners. Once everyone was seated at our table, we would take each other’s hands and give a blessing of thanks. Our tradition at home was to take turns giving the blessing. That’s what we did at this table. The guys considered it an honor when their turn came to give thanks. You were never quite sure what they would say, but it was always heartfelt and often moved me to tears.
The other tradition my sons and I had was to share about our day. It soon became very obvious to me that this was probably the only time anyone ever really listened to what they had to say! Most were either estranged from their families or had fallen through the cracks of society so long ago, no one knew anything about their lives before the mental illness or addiction or whatever had taken such a strangle hold on their identities. By eating together, I learned that one served three tours in Viet Nam and wasn’t able to re-establish himself in American life after what he experienced. Several had college degrees, but either alcohol or mental illness made it difficult for them to hold a job. Another had his PhD from Harvard and was a college professor before a head injury complicated his life. Gradually we got glimpses of what was before being overshadowed again by what it was now. For an hour, three times a week, we were a family connected by a meal together.
What I learned eating at Our Father’s Table is that we never really know what all has gone on in someone’s life to lead them to where they are today. We may see the consequences of their choices or the results of their experiences, but there’s always more than what we see on the surface that makes up the richness and complexity of who we each are. We may not agree with their lifestyle or choices or be able to do much to alter their circumstances, but we can give them the honor and dignity and respect they deserve as another child of God.
Here’s the video Michael Jackson made for Man in the Mirror. It’s filmed with archival footage.