He sits in his metal folding chair at his corner of the long table, waiting patiently but with an almost palpable air of expectation. I can tell he’s been here before. In fact, he’s here every week, and he shows up well before 6:00 p.m., when they start serving the food. It’s a place to come – not home, but then again, home probably isn’t much.
His name is Roy and this is one of four soup kitchen meals for the week. Two churches in town offer meals on Thursday night – he’s trying to get one to switch to Friday. Less than a $1,000 a month to live on doesn’t get you very far, he says. These meals help him stretch his dollars out. He speaks carefully, precisely – he knows what he wants to say. All the prices going up – groceries, gas, food – are because of oil, he says. It all goes back to oil.
He’s 73, with thick, bushy eyebrows that were once black and are now mixed with gray and white. Thinning gray hair, slim build, deep-set dark eyes that look at me and seem to say, “I know you think you’re better than better than me, young man. You’re dressed nicer than me and you’re here to give us food. But I’ve lived a long time and I don’t want your condescension. I’ll take your food, but you better not suggest you’re any better than I am.”
He doesn’t say that, of course. But I feel like that, like I’m looking at him as if I’ve got it all together and because I’m so great, I’m generously offering to help him. Why would he be here if he doesn’t need help? Why would I be here if I couldn’t help? That’s the whole point. To help. But I feel helpless, like I don’t know what I’m doing.
He has two children – one 51 and one 19. He’s been married and divorced twice, once to the smartest person he’s ever known, a woman who could instantly recall any passage out of any book she had read. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science and says he once wrote a thousand pages of poetry. He wrote other pieces as well, leading to a publishing company inquiring after his services. They wouldn’t give him an advance, so he didn’t write for them.
He speaks German. He worked for the railroad (and in my wife’s hometown, no less). He played football and basketball and baseball and now he has switched to pool and chess with buddies at the senior center and the AmVets. Football and chess are very similar, he says.
I tell him he should write again, that I would read it for him. He says he can’t, that he hasn’t done it in years and there’s not much left in his head. I tell him I bet there is. He says that in his life, he’s been beaten with crowbars, hammers and baseball bats, and that takes a toll. He doesn’t say why he was beaten or who beat him.
He eats politely, but with some urgency, with a quiet need – he has to get the food down while he can, while it’s there.
He knows the others here, the retired pastor who just moved back to town (and who is eating straight margarine with a plastic knife), the tall, good-humored man who brought in a few ears of corn to share with his friends, the five Mexican kids who laugh and joke and give high fives and play like they don’t have a care in the world but they must because their grandmother is raising them, the nicely dressed ones, the bedraggled ones, the woman who asks me to pray because her 14-year old daughter just ran away again and she doesn’t know where she is, the older woman who came early and wants the spaghetti sauce jars to take home and asks for one to be filled with coffee. I load the box of jars in her car, which is filthy, filled with stale bread and doughnuts and crumbs and flies and trash.
They sit in this church basement, eat their salad and spaghetti and garlic bread and brownie on paper plates, drink their lemonade and water and coffee, and they’re grateful. They’re momentarily full, able to relax. What will tomorrow be like?
Roy picks up his blue baseball hat, says he enjoyed my presence and hopes I’ll be there next week. He swings quickly out, heading to play chess.
We can give them food. We can come back and build relationships and try to share the Gospel. We can fill their stomachs. But God must fill their hearts.