I like to think when the good Lord nudges, I respond. Sometimes it takes a nudge or two before I get it and sometimes He puts me right where I need to be to get the message loud and clear. The latter was the case when I ended up seated next to Al Young recently at an event I was covering for the newspaper.
Al coordinates the Barrow County Cooperative Benevolence Ministries Mobile Food Pantry, which is held at Holly Hill Mall on the fourth Thursday of each month. And apparently there was some work for me to do there and some lessons for me to learn because after talking with Al about this effort for only a few minutes, I went home and put the next food distribution on my calendar.
Al is a quiet man, soft spoken and full of purpose; his enthusiasm for the monthly food distribution and for the volunteers, churches and vendors who help make it happen is obvious and contagious.
As I bundled up for my first distribution on that really cold fourth Thursday of last month, I wondered what I would find. Was this really going to be rewarding, or would it turn out to be a waste of time?
The parking lot was full of cars and people and bustling energy. The people who were waiting to get food had apparently been there for a while, as they sat in lawn chairs, all huddled up in blankets, in a line – a really long line. The pallets of food had been unloaded; the boxes, carts and bags needed to get each bundle of food to every person in line were in place; and the volunteers were ready. It was an amazing sight.
One guy’s job was to cut open the boxes of beans, canned vegetables and fruit, boxed milk and jars of juice that go into each food package. A line of volunteers put a certain number of food items — bags of beans, canned goods, frozen blueberries, pork patties, whatever the ministries had gleaned for that month — into boxes that another group of volunteers slid down tables on the food distribution box packing line. At the end, “runners” with grocery carts, kids’ wagons and dollies joined one, two or three of the folks who were there for food and took their packages to their vehicle, wherever it might be in that big Holly Hill Mall parking lot. It was like a well-oiled, human assembly line working very enthusiastically – for free.
That first month my job was white beans – I stood on the food dispersing line and put three (not two or four, but three) bags of white beans in each box. It was really pretty boring and because all I saw were other volunteers, I didn’t really feel like I was in the mix. But at the end of the morning, when all the food had been handed out, I felt strangely gratified. It felt good to be an anonymous cog in such a big helping machine. I thanked Al for telling me about the effort and told him I’d be back next month.
This month, the weather was way more pleasant, but for some reason, there were way fewer volunteers. So while we were not nearly as challenged by the conditions, the relatively small number of volunteers present made it clear our work was just as cut out for us as it had been last month in the cold.
After a little time spent cutting open boxes (I brought my own box cutter this time…) I got to be a “runner,” which was wildly more entertaining than distributing bags of beans.
Rapid fire, load after load, I hustled food packages to people’s cars, trucks or in some cases, grocery carts, where they stood waiting for a friend or family member to come pick them up. In the process, I got to actually see and talk to the folks who were there for free food.
As is the case with any hand-out, there were some system abusers – for example, the two well-dressed men in cowboy hats and nice boots who let me load their food into a really nice, new Ford F-350 crew cab pick-up truck, all tweaked out with big new tires and really nice rims. “Shame on you!” I thought, as I rushed back across the parking lot to refill my cart.
The next customer put me back in my place. He was a humble, dirty, very thankful and shabbily-dressed man who helped me put his food in his faded, beat up old car… And so it unfolded… The single mothers and babies…The young woman with manicured nails, too busy talking on her i-phone to even point her car out to me… And a moment of tears and a strong hug when I encountered a young woman who recognized me because she went to school with my daughter… She’s now living with her parents, waiting for a liver transplant.
Pretty quickly it became clear to me that this was not about them — it was about me. The reason I had been led to Holly Hill Mall on the fourth Thursday of each month was to learn to suspend judgment and simply, anonymously serve.
Deuteronomy 15:11 states, “Since there will never cease to be some in need… I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy…”
No doubt about it, I’ll be at Holly Hill Mall early in the morning of the fourth Thursday of next month and the month after that and the month after that because when the good Lord calls and you answer, you’re always in for a wild, humbling, rewarding ride!
Lorin Sinn-Clark is a writer for the Barrow Journal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.