So I finally got myself to serve at the Emmanuel Dining Room in Wilmington, Delaware.  I got back that feeling and desire to serve, but it probably wasn’t as strong as it was a week ago.  What I felt was that it was important to serve because something from this would give me strength to continue the next step.  As to what the next step was I didn’t know but one thing seemed clear that this was a needed step.  It’s like when someone tells you the answer will appear when it is time.  Oh geez.

The Emmanuel Dining Room is a real nice setup for anyone interested in volunteering.  It’s very informal.  You call up the Dining Room ahead of time to just find out the times they are open and then you just show up.  There are no commitments or expectations.  If you’re there great, speak up and ask for direction in what to do and just pitch in.  If you’re not there we never expected you anyway.  On the day I served there were more than enough helping hands.  My impression is that they generally never run short on help, so mostly volunteering is more about what it gives to those who volunteer and not so much about what it gives to the hungry who eat there.

When I go there it was a bit intimidating because it was located in a semi-rough part of Wilmington.  The place was located close to a major road, but then again there have been drug related crimes including shootings in this area, somewhat rare, but it’s happened near this area.  I was unable to find a parking spot next to the major road so I had to park a block away.  The fact that I was parked near a major church didn’t seem to help that much.  The fact that it was raining and miserable outside did help, because I believe bad weather tends to deter outdoor activity, including criminal activity.

When I entered the dining room there was an immediate energy shift. The best adjective I could use to describe this was: “hard core”.  You cold smell the body order of unbathed homeless, but it wasn’t too strong. The room was smallish, capable of seating maybe 30 diners maximum at a time.  You could imagine this being a prison camp cafeteria being run by some local tribal leaders.  It was “hard core” because you could definitely sense that the people here, the volunteers or the diners have frequently brushed with are have been part of some “hard core” activity like maybe drug dealing, car theft and robbery. However, just the same you also felt this deep reverence and respect for humanity.  There was definitely an air of respect, orderliness and compassion for all in this room.

If you enter the Emmanuel Dining Room, you will be accepted, you will be promptly seated and you will be served immediately.  You’ll get plenty of water to drink, and additionally maybe some additional bread rolls and tiny desserts.  If you wear a hat, please take it off before eating.  You don’t have to eat what you are served but remember there are no second servings allowed here.  When you are done you’re expected to carry your used plate, cup and silverware to one of the volunteers, but it’s not required.  It’s just that it’s respectful behavior if you do. But just the same we’ve got plenty of volunteers ready and willing to help you because it’s respectful behavior if they do.

Things are loosely managed at this place.  You start off asking what you should do and then you start looking for wherever help is needed.  Few words of direction are said, you just read the situation and look at the flow of things and just fit in.  As a newbie volunteer you’ll just carry plates of food from the kitchen window to a seated diner.  Initially it gets busy for the first 5 minutes as you shuttle back and forth between the kitchen and the dining tables. But then you reach this slightly awkward stage where there’s maybe five volunteers trying to decide who is going to feed the single new diner who just entered the door.  So then you the volunteers try to be polite in allowing each volunteer a turn to serve.  Everyone eagerly wants to be doing something, as it feels like a privilege to know that you are doing something good, that each plate you get to place before a diner is yet another “atta boy” for you.

The portion sizes are maybe equivalent to a Nutrisystem diet dinner with dessert.  If you manage to scarf up extra bread rolls or mini-dessert items then you get more.  Today for lunch it was two hot dogs, a scoop of baked beans and a small dessert (like half a banana). If I was hungry I’d scarf all that stuff down in a few minutes which many did.  But I was surprised at the many who didn’t.  Another person walked in and then walked out because they were now serving ham and he refused to eat pork.  I saw several cases of mostly filled plates being thrown away!  But then I saw cases where some people gave others the food they didn’t like.  I saw another man stash his hot dogs in a plastic cup as if to ration his meager portion for later in the day when he was back on the streets!  You see the Emmanuel Dining room is opened for only 1 hour a day.  On week days they only serve breakfast in the morning, and on weekends it’s lunch only. So you had better make the best of your stay here because you may not eat again until the next day.  I saw another couple trying to stash extra rolls and into a plastic bag for later.  With things like the dinner rolls and the mini dessert items there was no formal rule on the maximum you could take.  Finally, I saw one diner having a plate of food turned away.  The person directing the diners recognized his face before; this person was trying to get a second serving of food.  The person was allowed to sit down but he was told respectfully as possible that he couldn’t get any more food.  There was no more commotion as no one could blame the person for trying, but these were the rules.

As I served I felt there times I could almost cry.  I wasn’t sure though if it was because of sympathy for some of these diners or because of the joy of being able to serve.  There was a fair amount of food that diners threw away, and at least one of kids of the diners had owned an iPod nano.  So one at times could question how bad off really were some of these people or how much benefit we were providing to them.  But once again for me it was more about what it did for me.

At the Emmanuel Dining Room there are times that you have one hungry person and a dozen people ready and able to serve that person.  So it’s a privilege to be the one that serves that one hungry person.  There are plenty of helping hands here.  There is no desperate need for you help.  You are there to help because you expect to be given the chance to help and feel good about this.  The veteran volunteer workers recognize this and so they tend to sit back more and let you eagerly have at it and do the work you want.

I will come back here again to help and to receive, to learn how to feel honored to serve, to learn how it’s a great privilege to be served or to serve in this place. To receive the gift of relearning how to be compassionate and respectful.  And all the while acknowledge your own feelings be it pity, criticalness, fear, confusion or whatever was on your mind before coming here.

I will come back here again.

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