Be the Cause

Is that all there is?

About a week ago, I came in on the boozy end of an extended conversation about “human greatness.” I had expressed that in realizing my individual “greatness,” I am also faced with my own limitations in serving others. Someone had mentioned that this may be due to ego. That gave me a lot to mull over, and today I think I’ve come to understand what that means.

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the major reasons I want to cook for the Ladies at the Downtown Women’s Center is to provide a relatively healthy, substantial meal that will feed and sustain people who do not otherwise have access to such food, who might not be able to eat as well until the next day’s breakfast because the shelter does not provide a dinner. There have been days when the food we prepared was abundant, there were leftovers, and every single Lady had their fill. Today was not one of them. I had grossly underestimated how many people would show up; there were too many people and not enough food.

In my family, this is like the horror of all horrors. If there’s one thing I can say about coming to dinner at the Acoba’s, it’s that you’ll be stuffed so much you can’t move. And even then we will continue to force-feed you, and have no qualms about resorting to guilt and shame….but only because we love you. This is the kind of mentality I grew up with, and perhaps what I have in the back of my mind when I approach these lunches at the DWC. Lots of good food=love.

Inspired by Sujana’s lunch, and as a tribute to my own family, we made my favorites — fried rice and “egg rolls” filled with banana and jackfruit (turon, or banana lumpia). I was so excited until I found out that instead of 31 Ladies, we had to serve 52. There weren’t enough volunteers to serve that number of Ladies, so each table was called and they lined up. We had to ration the portions and spread the rice out on the small plates so it would appear they were getting more. The whole time I was thinking: how generous can I be with this plate? Did I really just say generous? My heart sank.

We had little left over for seconds, but called them anyway. Of course there was a stampede. There was one Lady who wasn’t fast enough, and so she tried to cut in line. She was angry, pushing her way through and yelling “I’m hungry!” Another Lady down the line looked like she was giving the volunteers an earful. Others would say, is that it? Some kept holding their plates out, disappointed that they’d only get 1/2 a scoop. Yet there were others who said that they were grateful to have this food. They still thanked and clapped for us. As soon as it was over, I wanted out of there. (In fact, this is the kind of thing that made me want a cigarette).

Was it my ego that caused me to become so upset?

Volunteers that morning drove out to Downtown LA and poured their labor and love into the preparation of that meal. I thought about my other family in Hawaii, who would prepare the same simple meal when we would visit. It’s obvious that they’ve stretched their budgets to do this. They’ve worked long and hard to earn it. They’ve recently immigrated, and in their small apartments they will share everything they have.

I had come to the DWC with all my ingredients, thinking that I am in a position where I have more and in a sense, am there to “share the wealth.” It turns out that all I have is: all I have. This may not appear to be much to some, but it was my humble offering. It was our humble offering that we gave with the best of intentions. That generosity cannot be quantified.

Does serving others have to be equated with making people happy? Or is it enough to be simply content, knowing that you have given of yourself, meager or insufficient as it might appear to others, accepting that, individually, that is greatness in itself?

Sujana’s happy meal

With her own two hands, Sujana prepared a homemade Indian meal for the Ladies at the Downtown Women’s Center this past Sunday. In a sense, she was a savior in more ways than one. We could have ended up with some food made rather in the Indian-style, based on recipes I would have plucked from or “The Best Recipes of the World.”

For all the BTC potlucks I’ve gone to, I’ve always opted to bring the fizzy lemonade in favor of the vegetarian dish. You see, to anyone raised on McDonald’s and mac n’ cheese, lentils are just scary. When we first met to discuss what we would serve at the DWC, I was under the impression that the Ladies were more “meat ‘n potato” kinda gals, and so they’d sneer at things like curries and tofu. I was soooo wrong. Sujana’s samosas, lentils and rice with vegetables were met with loud applause and gratitude. How could I have ruled out serving the very food that so many BTC folks love to make and share in their very homes? From now on, I think that instead of calling this a service project, we’ll just put out an invite and say that we’re getting together for a potluck at the DWC in true BTC style.

I’ve realized that at its core, this project is no longer about homelessness, trying to spark up a meaningful conversation with a complete stranger or feeling guilty for having “more than others.” More volunteers than I had expected to see inevitably turn up everytime. Inevitably, some Ladies will sit at the tables in front of the kitchen and just watch us, relaxed and smiling. Inevitably someone will show up with something special: Supun with his cartons of juice and water bottles, Joyce with that killer cake, Anna with fabulous peaches from her father’s tree. They see us pour a lot of labor and goodness and happiness into that meal. It’s so beautiful to see everyone light up. This is what it’s all about.

On that deathly hot day, the Ladies came in for lunch and were locked in for one hour. During that one hour, they could escape the heat, relax and be fed by some pretty amazing people who had somehow been drawn to the Center that day — even though they had other things initially in mind. By the end, volunteers were offering to bring Vietnamese or Nicaraguan food. Maybe I’ll throw down and bring some Filipino food as well.

It’s as if the line between guest and host has been blurred. You can show up with or without food; serve or don’t serve. We’d all still be so happy to have you.

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