Tuesday, November 15, 2011

HASK not

For our fourth Lived Religion in NYC fieldtrip (the others took us to Eldridge Street, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine and the Rubin Museum of Art) we did something rather interesting today. We went to the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen. But we didn't volunteer; we stood in line, and ate sloppy joes, cole slaw and corn on the cob with the other guests. My original idea had been for us to volunteer, but that would involve arriving at 9:30 and staying at least until 12:30, not possible for busy students. A logistical constraint became a pedagogical opportunity. It is harder to receive than to give, and we got to see HASK from the receiving end. (Our presence contributed something though, if only conversation fodder: some folks evidently thought us refugees from last night's razzia on Zuccotti Park!) And maybe some of the students will make the not unprecedented move from guest to volunteer.

I timed the visit to come in the middle of our reading of a book about another well-known New York food charity whose name misleadinlgy suggests a religious connection, Courtney Bender's Heaven's Kitchen. Bender's participant observation is of the community of volunteers in the kitchen of God's Love We Deliver, an organization which brings food to homebound people with AIDS. The kitchen volunteers never see the recipients of their work, and don't talk about AIDS. They also, Bender found, rarely talk about religion. What do they talk about? Bender's a good listener, and describes the gossamer-like threads of spirituality, memory, habit, etc. which make this a community. GLWD's mottos are food is lovefood is therapy and food is charity. Bender finds the kitchen workers disdain such explanations as marketing; "food is the message." But the mottos do help define some of the very different and even conflicting rationales for feeding programs - it's not just nutrition - and I was eager for students to sense the wordless but eloquently polyvalent message of food prepared at a place like HASK, and to see the overlap of the different HASK communities: guests and volunteers (maybe even that both are outreach missions of the church)... Did they get it? We'll see once we discuss student reflections on Thursday.

The whole thing went much more quickly than I anticipated. I was expecting (planning!) to spend half an hour in the line but we were in in ten minutes. The food happens very quickly, too, and is quickly eaten. Not that anyone is hurrying you on; au contraire, you feel welcome to take your time, make yourself at home, and people do. But the staff and sixty volunteers pass in a blur. It's all friendly efficiency (and the food was tasty!). From experience I know that the stations of volunteers are involved in conversations as warm and disjointed as those Bender found at GLWD. But the contact between the worlds of volunteers and guests is like the interlocking of gears, perfectly fitting but touching only for the briefest moment. Both are in movement - am I letting a metaphor get out of hand here? - but in different directions. Part of the fulfillingness of volunteering at HASK is precisely being part of so well-oiled a machine. Is it also the precisely defined and limited contact with guests - not that different from GLWD's kitchen workers who never saw the people who ate their food? HASK has recently moved the food service volunteers into the church space, so volunteers and guests share the space. Have people's experiences changed?
(Pictures from here and here)

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