I’ve recently found myself in one of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in San Francisco, helping provide over 2000 meals a day to those in need. Let me reiterate that number… 2000+ meals. A day. Not only does this number illustrate the dire need in this city, but, it speaks to the very real problem of food security across all races, ethnicities, genders, and ages.
Leaving my somewhat safe neighborhood in the morning and heading to the Tenderloin can be a bit jarring. As I sit on the bus and descend down into the throngs of people living on the street, urine flowing through the gutters, used needles, feces in corners of buildings, mattresses on the sidewalk, tents lined up along almost every block, overwhelmingly bad smells, yet, sprinkled with families walking their children to school, I’m struck by the demographics. Most people associate the Tenderloin with an African American population. However, over the years, the neighborhood has seen an uptick of refugees from Yemen and Syria, as well as a high Asian and Latino presence, and many more Caucasians as well.
As I walk into a sacred space that feeds hundreds upon hundreds a day, I’m struck by the dichotomy of those who have so much, to those who have so little. It is not as staggering as what I experienced while living in India, but, nonetheless, it’s almost more confounding. This is my city. I was born here, lived in many different places, and I returned back to San Francisco almost five years ago. I continually try to grasp that there are hungry people, right down the road, not even two miles from my apartment.
While I observe the dining room I am taken aback by the sheer amount of people. In fact, I find myself thinking… I could easily be one of these. More, I am in awe of the tenacity that seeps into the room as people eat their meals and the integrity it takes to walk through the door and ask for a free meal. My respect finds me in a quandary of both silence and anger. I am stunned, obtuse, perplexed. I am observant in my greetings and invisible in my disbelief.
More, the message to me is loud and clear – No one is above finding themselves in dire need. When I was still married and we were stationed in Italy in 1993, my former husband and I found ourselves able to feed our three year old daughter, but not us. We finally asked for help, but it wasn’t easy. You would be surprised how many military families simply do not make enough money to live without supplemental income and help. And now, years later, I am finally leaving a year and a half of sheer financial struggle, that, without the help of friends and my parents, I would have been more hungry than I was, and I wouldn’t have been able to pay my rent. I never sought free meals, but, it crossed my mind.
I admit when I see myself in the many faces I greet every day, I flinch a bit. As someone who chose a non-traditional path to, well, my entire life, I relate to the struggles faced by many I encounter. I am really not much different than they are. Some might be just as educated as me, many are not. However, hunger is a universal language that cannot be stopped by degrees or familial ties.
There’s a notion that those who get free meals, are “slackers,” “free loaders,” or “lazy.” When in reality, people who need food assistance come from several different places in their lives. They may have had a life altering injury or illness that won’t let them work. They may have emotional or mental health problems brought on by abusive childhoods or trauma. They may be addicted. They may be senior citizens who simply don’t make enough on social security. And yes, they may be homeless.
The experience of helping feed hundreds a day is not without others who are called to do this endless work. Cooks, warehouse workers, dishwashers, kitchen staff, security – a whole slew of compassionate souls – all who show up to work at 6AM or even earlier, to feed hungry people. Keep in mind, they don’t have to wake-up at 4:00AM to make over 2000 meals a day. They choose to do so. Then there are volunteers that show up every day to serve those 2000+ meals. Not because they have to, but because they want to. It really is humbling to spend my days with people who want to make this little part of the world a better place, simply by providing sustenance and nourishment, mixed with hope and love.
Matthew 25:40 says, “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
I don’t view the people whom I encounter in the Tenderloin as the “least of these.” If anything, they are the most of each other and of us. I don’t mean most as in amount, I mean most as in they are strong, courageous, hopeful, and resilient. They are our teachers. They are of a society gone so awry, that as we maneuver around their homes on the sidewalk, as we witness them stumble down the street, as we walk by the portable toilet they must stand in line to use, as they shoot up while we pass by trying not to stare – we find these conditions to be normal. I am taken aback by this normalcy, that should never be viewed as “the way it is.” It is unacceptable. Because it doesn’t have to be this way. It shouldn’t be this way.
In a few short weeks in the Tenderloin, I have learned that I am the student. These people that we label as living on the “fringes of society,” they are our fellow human beings. They live a life we, for the most part, cannot truly fathom. They do this not with a sense of embarrassment, but with a sense of survival and candor that only those who are true survivors can achieve. No matter what other human beings hand to them, they keep going. They are the most of themselves.
God calls all of us to serve. What medium we use to do so, is our choice. I invite you to go where you’ve not gone before. Let yourself be uncomfortable. Challenge yourself to believe that one simple act, creates a more just and right community and planet. Go serve. But, don’t just serve. Encounter. Be present. Give. Receive. Love. Be loved. And then, go do it all again and again. Because this is all we’ve got. This is all they’ve got. This is all we are. The least and the most of us. We are all Beloved.