Be the Cause

Ingredients for a successful revolution

Yesterday was our third day of serving lunch to the ladies at the Downtown Women’s Center. And that was just it: serving lunch by laying a hamburger patty on a bun while Rucha put a scoop of fries onto a plate, which was then passed to someone else for salad. “Do you want mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup? What about salad? You want salad? Whose is this? What did you want? Table 2, next!”

In one half hour the Ladies shuffled past us in a line, and we were done. We washed up and left. There was nothing else to do, no more food to share, no way we could initiate some type of conversation with the Ladies without feeling like we were imposing on their circle. For as regimented as this particular luncheon may seem, it might also be the only reliable and consistent thing in their lives. Practically speaking, who am I to interfere or presume that they are in need of more?

This was not what I had envisioned when I arranged for us to volunteer. This is not the type of “revolution” we were to have! While Rucha works with survivors of domestic violence, I work with older adults and folks with disabilities. I thought that given our backgrounds, we would be able to offer some other resources, or at least be of help in some other way. We are both counselors, we are advocates. And still, we have yet to interact with the Ladies on a personal and meaningful level.

As it turns out, I think I’m just too shy or awkward to go up to one of the Ladies and try to initiate a conversation. What would we talk about? We come from two different worlds, and once I’ve put food on their plates I’d get to go back home. Actually, I’d get to go to a quaint little restaurant for $8 french toast and $2 coffee to debrief with Rucha about the last hour.

The greatest aspect of service is the process itself, where you’re challenged to think about the project at hand in a social/political context, and how you are personally responsible for promoting or changing it. That first day I decided that since I’m unable to chat with the Ladies, I would apply what I learned from my Seva experience: if I could simply serve this hamburger, this cup of soup, this piece of chicken — whatever it may be — with love, I would be doing more. One of the Ladies asked which church we were with, and I told her that we were just there to help out. I thought of the concept of “charity,” and how Seva goes so much further than that. For me, “charity” connotes condescension, hierarchy. I think ultimately I feel a need to give or reinforce a sense of dignity to these Ladies who are so ignored, who are everyday surviving.

The Ladies smile at me and say thank you. I feel awkward saying “you’re welcome.” I feel like they should not thank me at all because my presence there is just, it’s human and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. There’s nothing extraordinary about this.

Ultimately I want to be there to listen because I honestly believe that no one else is. I want to tell that teenaged girl with her mother that she’s so strong and precious. I want to tell those elderly Asian ladies that I understand that they’re not used to eating beans, and it’s ok if they don’t want any. I wanted to tell them that I’m sorry that there wasn’t enough food, and that some of it was burnt or the portions were not equal. I’m sorry it’s not fair, but what can I do to make it better?

To be an advocate is to empower individuals who want change, and then help them to achieve that change.

What can we each do to make this better?

I’m open to suggestions.

first weekend of serving at the downtown women’s center

melisa called me sunday morning to tell me she is on her way. anxiously i asked her how yesterday went. she said i will tell you about it. as soon as she picked me up, i asked her again. we spoke on the way to the downtown women’s center…she said the previous day went well. she was the only one volunteering that day. we started talking about our shared fears, us coming into this space, conscious of our privilege, how would we be received. somehow walking into the space, serving, and then leaving didn’t sit well with me. we talked some more about why we are serving, is it to feel good about ourselves or to genuinely serve others? we talked about stereotypes and perceptions of homeless people. melisa’s experience from the previous day challenged some of these assumptions. we reached the shelter.

inside the atmosphere was light. it felt relaxing. we walked in ready to do whatever we were told. the food was still cooking so we had some time before we served. we helped set up the plates and utensils. i took in the environment. standing at the counter wrapping the napkins around the forks and knives, to the right of me was a boom box playing notorious big. one of the residents went up and turned the volume louder. some of the women were dancing and singing. i mouthed the words a little myself. it almost seemed like a party. there were several tables set up along the wall. many women were sitting at the tables. they looked as though they were hoping for lunch time to roll around a little sooner. some of the women walked by and said hi. some of the women strolled in and out of the kitchen taking care of personal needs. i naturally compared this space to the domestic violence shelter i work in, and continued to reflect as we served.

there was a diverse group of women. i thought of who may have called the hotline at work, and if i had referred any of these women to dwc because our domestic violence shelter didn’t have space at the time. my heart sank a little because most women in homeless shelters are survivors of domestic violence. i wondered if they were getting appropriate services and the support they needed. it seemed inappropriate for me to start distributing domestic violence brochures. i hadn’t brought them with me because i didn’t want to come off presumptuous to the shelter staff who are already doing incredible work, and i didn’t want to come off righteous to the residents. maybe next time i will take some with me and somehow find an appropriate time to at least leave them there in case anyone can benefit from the information.

the food was finally ready and it was brought over to the counter. chicken, rice with butter, and yams. the aroma of the yams wafted up my nose. it smelled so delicious. melisa asked me if i wanted to cut the chicken, i told her i would prefer not to (i’m vegetarian). so the tasks were decided, she would serve the chicken and i, the rice and yams. table numbers would be called out and the women sitting at that table would then be able to come up to make a plate. at first what seemed like a natural flow of human beings in a communal space, all of a sudden became organized. the volume of the music was turned back down. melisa and i washed our hands for the second time and put the gloves on.

as the women came up to the counter, the silver pot of rice stood taller than me on the counter. i was on tip toes scooping the rice out. some of the women commented about this in a humorous way. there was a lot of rice so i served it liberally. i made sure to try to make eye contact with each woman. in each of them there was something unique and beautiful. they all seemed so thankful. a couple of the women resonated with me. one was so upbeat and had a huge smile on her face. i think she noticed me staring at her. i was struck by her. there was also a mother and her adult daughter there. the daughter was making the plate for her mother. they reminded me of my mom. she told me that there was no more water left and asked me if she could go to the sink to get some. i said yes, not sure if i was violating any shelter rules, actually not caring if i was. one thing i noticed was that most of the women were looking out for each other. when one of the tables didn’t get called for a while, a woman at another table brought it to the attention of the staff, shouldn’t table 7 be called now? even more amazing was how patient the women at table 7 were, sitting quietly to be called.

once everyone was able to get a plate of food, then seconds was called out. this wasn’t as systematic as before. there was a sudden rush to line up for more food. melisa and i felt bad because not everyone got the same portions of food, and the chicken started running out during seconds. there was still a lot of rice though, and that seemed to be a big hit. some of the women thanked us for serving the food. i felt uncomfortable. i admired them, for keeping such positive attitudes, their perserverance, and kindness.

once the food was finished melisa and i washed up. we were thanked and told to come back. i told them i will. i think each time i will set a goal for myself to do more. i left feeling like i didn’t do enough. maybe next time i will engage in conversation with one of the residents, and then after that i will try talking to 2 more people. i believe true social change comes from listening to others’ experiences (preferably also trying to live these experiences), then only can we really know what is required of us to make the change from within, ultimately leading to broader change. as rubaiyat from south asian network says, the revolution must continue…

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