On August 13, 2016, I got to take part in a Legacy Initiative event called Dining with Dignity, where we served the homeless population of Salt Lake City a three-course meal, with desert, pasta, and salad. It was an amazing event. Just trust me when I say that, yo.
Have you ever been hungry? Say, waiting impatiently in line at a fast food restaurant at a place like McDonald’s or Wendy’s as other customers throw a fit for not being served on time? Have you ever been impatient with a server at a fancy restaurant because they messed up your order? Have you ever just had a bad day because … you’re just very, very hungry, and yet you haven’t been able to eat yet?
Hunger is real, folks. It’s biological, though also psychological, and it’s certainly pervasive and impacting. It affects our mood, our behavior, our disposition: our life.
Now imagine how a homeless man or woman or child feels. They probably haven’t eaten all day, and they come to an event called Dining with Dignity, having no idea what to expect. Do they have to wait in line and deal with unhappy food servers? Will it be another terrible meal at the local kitchen for the economically underprivileged? (I’ve seen the food: Let’s just say, it isn’t pretty.)
Now imagine us trying to change, with one event, with one meal, days, months, years, of conditioning. Conditioned to go in and get your food and then get out. Herded, literally, like cattle. Treated like an animal. Not like a human.
This explains why Dining with Dignity was … well, shall we say, a little bit more complicated than we planned.
The logistics were sound, of course. And certainly, it looks good on paper. But pulling off an event like this, with deep sociological and social implications, is difficult, and the event was telling and revealing for reasons you wouldn’t expect.
Some people just wanted their food. That was it. They just wanted food. They were rude about it, too, exhausting our poor servers. Serving six tables with little time to get the order, much less the food, to the point to where it became a catastrophe and at one point we didn’t even know whose order was whose (seeing as how we were literally taking food orders from the people).
But think about it: How many people are already like this at restaurants? They just want their food. Simple as that. And they make a scene, a well-dressed man not so well-mannered, shouting like a psycho about how he didn’t get his pickle on his hamburger.
And even still: This was not representative of the situation. Of course there were going to be unhappy people. You literally can’t please everyone, even when you’re going out of your way, have been working all day to prepare everything nice and neat. And when it comes to food, one of our most primal needs: Sometimes, you’re just very hungry, and that’s the end of the story.
This wasn’t representative because, as my friend Tracy said, many people were actually touched at what we were doing. Why are you doing this, some asked. Because, as my friend Tracy said, we wanted to do something nice for you. And then they were like: For us? And Tracy was like: Yes. For you.
I imagine that felt good. And it felt good for us, to see such gratitude.
Indeed, I was struck at the sheer magnitude of pure need. Technically, we don’t have it as bad as third-world countries … which makes me feel absolutely helpless when it came to this event. That’s because, the population is better taken care of here (at least there is reason to believe), and yet, it was overwhelming. The need was real. The hunger. Just the sheer need. It reminds me just how privileged and blessed I am.
And it was a complex event. There was a lady who actually worked there, burnt out probably, yelling at us to just “push out food until nine o’ clock at night.” Completely missing the point of what we were doing, and making it what they always make it. In a sense, I think what we did (Dining with Dignity) had to hold this exact attitude and zeitgeist for the toxic narrative surrounding the homeless accountable. Because we weren’t going to put up with it. We were here to serve people for a special occasion, and we weren’t going to make it industrial, overly pragmatic, hyper-rational, detached and cold … we wanted to make it cool and fun for all those involved.
This, to me, is representative of something important: Perhaps why this didn’t go as smoothly as planned: The people we serve are conditioned to get their food, sit down for a few moments to eat a bad meal, and then leave. Just like that. No compassion. No dignity. From, the very people who serve them. So of course there’s going to be a few hitches to the operation. It’s not like we were serving people who were well-rested and well-treated. Much less well-nourished.
You know, when you get hungry? And you can’t think straight? Hangry and all that fun stuff?
Yeah: That feeling.
Anyway: I had a lot of fun regardless. It was a good experience. But it was hard and grueling work. We were working so hard to make the food effectively and efficiently, bring the food out to the people, and put on a good night with music and festivity and light.
I got to talk to one homeless individual. I thought he was a cool guy. I sat with him, and Stephanie brought me cheesecake (dos cheesecakes, as our joke goes). We talked for a little bit. He went on about how it’s all about money, and why don’t the homeless get a cut of the gold? I thought this was a valid point, particularly when he pointed out that some people have money, but they just save it up and save it up and it essentially becomes worthless capital that other people could completely and legitimately use.
I didn’t know the story of this individual, but I introduced myself as Phoenix, and enjoyed my cheesecake in his company. He was a beautiful soul.
He reminded me of why I respect the homeless: Because I will never understand their situation, their complex backstory, their ruggedness, and because they take on the weight of the world with dignity and acceptance.
When we were done eating, he took off, but I shook his hand, and he said to me, “Thank you for eating with me.”
That comment alone made the entire event worth it for me. Of course I would eat with you, kind sir. And I’m sorry that class issues are so pervasive that I can’t normally.
I noticed this. It was easier for us volunteers, even with our compassionate desires, to talk to each other. This is pervasive. A major class issue. I mention this not to criticize ourselves, but to show why it’s so complicated: The barriers are real. We can make an effort to talk to the homeless and vice versa, but they are so used to being seen as invisible, some probably wonder, what’s the point? And I wonder, can they really relate to us?
But we were certainly trying our hardest.
And then, of course … I saw, a homeless kid. American Indian? Navajo, perhaps? I don’t know. He was little, maybe six or so. In rough shape for a little kid. Wearing a dark grey t-shirt. Eating his food quietly, standing up, eating it detached, staring off, perhaps looking deep into his dreams. I guess this is the part that broke my heart the most. I guess simply because: He has been born into this, and he doesn’t have a way out, even if only for now. What was his story? What is his story? Where is he today? Will he be all right? How is his health? Why did he have such a vacant expression on his face? Confusion at what was going on, all the social ramifications? It was sad for me because I didn’t see happiness, joy, on his face. This is an important point. To him, it was probably just food. A kind of pain: Something he must do to survive, and because his parents tell him to. I guess why it was most heartbreaking for me: Some have been demeaned so much, such as our kids, our little kids, that they can’t experience, what was supposed to be a good time.
Or, perhaps, it was confusion as to what was going on. You mean, the kid might have been wondering, some people actually care about us? He was too young to understand the implications in many aspects, but obviously not emotionally. I can guarantee he understood it all emotionally. And yes, the pain was real. It was real.
The kid hungered.
I also got to see my friend John, who has been on the streets for far too long, but is a close friend of Legacy’s. This is just a quick rant, but essentially, we gave him some food, and then we got yelled at by a manager for giving him food after hours and breaking the rules (not that we knew …), and that John had to leave immediately. This made me angry, but I went with John outside, and we talked for a little bit, pointing out the hypocrisy of having crosses at the kitchen when we do the furthest thing from what Christ did, to the poor. I joked that, didn’t Christ eat with the homeless and care for the homeless and love the homeless? I’m not sure. Maybe I missed something in church. And he joked that it’s really just a “t.” I asked him what it stands for: He said poignantly: trepidation. Fear. Essentially, fear. He didn’t say this on purpose, but it seemed to fit. And it’s true: So many of the poor are taught to have trepidation.
So, what else do I think? I could go on about how I lectured Tedd like a philosophy professor about the Myth of Sisyphus and what it means for existentialist philosophy (basically, I told Tedd about Camus, of how we roll the boulder up pointlessly, or so it feels, but find a way to then throw ourselves into our work, to make it meaningful: rolling up the boulder forever so it can drop back down isn’t meaningless), about how Legacy and I made jokes with each other, like when I told Tracy that Christianity made me gay and told him that a friend of mine thought that was probably actually true (Puritanism and sex as sin … you’ve got to objectify something if not women …), about my fun trip with Jennifer to get supplies for the day, about the overall frustrations, the heartaches, the joys, the beautiful moments: The passion and compassion.
But if I could sum it up, I would say it was a very human experience, a very human enterprise. It was a very human endeavor. We try, and we try our best, and it works the best we can get it to work. All we can do is try, as Tedd remarked at one moment in time. But this includes the homeless as well: They aren’t used to being treated like this. That much was apparent by how the night went. They are used to being kicked out, exploited, abandoned, abused, and hurt.
In other words: The hunger is real. The hunger must be addressed.
And believe me: I hunger for change.
But I was nourished for now, in part because of the joy I did get to see and experience. Of the good moments. Of the beauty: Come all who are weary and I will refresh you. In other words: we serve each other. We look after each other: Blessed are the poor in spirit.
And yes, I will still starve to love nonetheless.