This Thanksgiving morn I smugly drive to 10 Hammond Street, at least a little proud to be anywhere at 9:15 a.m. on a holiday, let alone Catholic Charities, where I would be making my meal delivery debut.
I am, of course, humbled immediately: The parking lot is already mostly full, with the line of would-be drivers stretching out the door. The morning is clear and cold, but the people warm me up immediately. Since moving here to Worcester, Massachusetts, I’ve learned to be temper my Southern extroversion, but in this line people’s spirits seem to expand into the moment.
One smiling woman introduces me to her teenage son, and volunteers that while this is her first time delivering meals for Catholic Charities, it’s not her first time to this building – her mother worked here for more than two decades, so she remembers visiting back in her girlhood. She’s looking forward to the family reunion meal later in the day, when she’ll surprise her mother with the news of where daughter and grandson spent the morning.
Inside the door we’re channeled past a desk where we are given cards with our designated numbers, and I follow the swirls and eddies of people into a series of rooms and halls, where people mingle while waiting for their number to be called. Mine is 135, and I suppose it’s a spiritual triumph that I can receive this news with mixed feelings. Normally when I hate lines and crowds, I’m stuck at the Registry of Motor Vehicles or a similarly joyless place; here people are talking, in mostly good spirits, in rooms lined with portraits of staff and clients of Catholic Charities. Their very presence is a testimony to the greater kindliness in people, our need to reach out to others. Before I leave the building, I’ll learn that, combining Thanksgiving and Christmas Days last year, Catholic Charities of Worcester County fed 3,516 people with the help of 592 volunteers.
But as the numbers are, I find something else more striking.
My sense is that for the volunteers, these are not isolated acts of charity – some pale penance for lives spent selfishly the rest of the year. Nor is it about simply feeding people on a holiday so associated – both digestively and emotionally – with food. Lingering in one room, I strike up a conversation with a woman who turns out to be particularly qualified for this mission: As a home health care nurse, she learned that one of the illnesses a visitor must address is just plain loneliness. So when delivering meals, she resists the temptation to rush. Instead, she makes the effort to sit and talk with each person. “They are always so nice and so appreciative. One woman was perfectly friendly, even when she wasn’t sure why I was there – she didn’t know it was Thanksgiving.”
Noting my “wow,” the volunteer continued. “It’s easy to become confused when you’re so isolated, so cut off.”
A few minutes later, out in the hallway, a mother and daughter discuss the same situation – the blend of pleasure at talking with residents and the sadness of their apparent solitude. Thinking back to the nurse, I remark on how easily one can become separated from family, how my nearest family consists of parents down in Alabama and a sister in the Florida Keys – and the mother immediately creases her brows in concern.
“Do you have a place to go today?” she asks.
Who, after a morning of waiting in line to deliver meals, then invites another stranger to her family’s meal? While I decline, her gesture warms me as I finally get my seven meals to my Toyota, compare the address cards – remarkably detailed – and see that my deliveries are within a half-mile of each other, most within three city blocks on Fruit and Sever. As I drive, I challenge myself to be as open of hand, heart and mind as these people I’ve just met, even reminding myself of advice on how to graciously end each conversation. Just mention that there are more folks waiting for their meals, the nurse had promised, and they’ll understand – it’s one more way for them to connect to something bigger.
Unfortunately, I can’t say the advice was necessary this time around. My first two deliveries were to a women’s shelter where male visitors weren’t allowed past the first floor, so I engage the security guard in conversation long enough to feel sure the meals would reach the right people. At another facility, the person is out of town while his building was undergoing renovation. I add his meal with the three that went to an address down the block, which is good since there are four people there, merry enough with each other’s company; they wish me a cheerful Happy Thanksgiving while watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. The one man I do find in apparent isolation is still in pajamas and robe; he simply shakes my hand, says thanks, and retreats shyly into his own space.
But even had those encounters been less brief, even if I had in fact made one person’s life less lonely, I suspect I’d feel the same thing as I drive to my place this Thanksgiving day – that this morning I was ministered to more than I ministered to anyone else. Sitting alone in my apartment, I feel grateful for all of my families, from the metaphorical sisters and brothers I’ve met today, to the siblings of my girlfriend I will meet later over a holiday meal, to the biological sister I talk with on the phone, discussing a morning that leaves me thankful for a lot of things, but most of all, for human connection.
May we all experience the same this Thanksgiving Day.