Our Small But Mighty Team

March 13, 2013 @ 11:15 am by Jacqui Lewis

On Saturday, February 23, 2013, volunteers from Middle Collegiate Church traveled to the Rockaways to work with Rockaway Plate Lunch Truck to provide relief to those affected by Sandy. Rachel Hippert, one of our Ministry Coordinators, wrote this guest blog about that experience.

The day began with several disappointments; the weather was frigid and damp, a persistent drizzle alternating with outright rain for a majority of the day, and (in part due to the weather conditions) our assembled group was a mere fraction of the anticipated number after a wave of cancellations. To add to this, we discovered a parking ticket decorating the rented van as we boarded it for the impending journey. With all of these marks against us at the outset, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suspect that we all bore sour looks and negative attitudes in dread of any further miseries that lay ahead. We wouldn’t allow ourselves to be downtrodden however, and our “small but mighty” group, as Alisa encouragingly deemed us, set forth for Queens.

Alisa drove well, and we (Lisa, Angie, Alisa, and myself) made it to our destination with little incident. As we wound through the neighborhood surrounding Beach 96th Street looking for a suitable parking spot, the boarded up windows of vacant buildings and debris-filled yards echoed the devastation that so recently occurred there. The dismal weather seemed an appropriate backdrop for the cheerless, desolate feeling that permeated the area. Once the van was parked and we were sufficiently bundled, we walked to where we saw the food truck stationed next to a building where scaffolding and wooden planking served as a makeshift shelter from the rain. Recognizing his voice, a distinctive British baritone, Alisa led us over to Craig, the food truck chef who would be preparing the day’s meal, chicken with rice and beans: simple fare, but filling with protein and fiber, and welcome to virtually any empty stomach. We learned from him that the food was purchased with money donated by supporters of Waves4Water, a charitable organization with a clean water initiative that has included the hurricane-devastated coastal areas of New York and New Jersey within the scope of their benevolence. Accompanying Craig was Mario, whose duties were assisting with the food preparation and guiding our efforts to serve it. Throughout the day, Mario’s talkative charm and easy interaction with the people acted as a perfect counterbalance for Craig’s organized and business-like manner. The two men were both very welcoming and seemed thankful for our presence.

One of the two ovens in the truck refused to function, therefore the cooking time was doubled as Craig and Mario had to regroup and make do with only one. With this extra time, we were encouraged to take a walk around the neighborhood before returning in time to begin serving the food. We decided to walk the two or so blocks down to the beach to observe the front lines of hurricane flooding damage. The houses lining the shore were mostly abandoned and vacant, windows boarded up with plywood, broken lawn furniture and debris cluttering the yards. Turning from the forlorn houses to the sea, I was struck with the destructive potential of the vast gray water, the churning fury that had overwhelmed the very land on which we stood, now contained beneath a deceptively benign surface, innocently lapping and foaming at a polite distance on the tawny sand. On the way back to the food truck after an appropriate interval, Lisa and Angie observed a house which was overrun by cats. Countless bowls with food could be seen scattered about on the porch, and the felines seemed to be the only inhabitants of the otherwise abandoned home. It made one consider what happened to some of the voiceless victims of the hurricane? The pets whose homes had been destroyed and owners either could not or would not reclaim and care for them?

Back at the food truck, we were joined by another volunteer, Donna, who had driven separately, the first wave of food was ready to serve, and a crowd of local people were already gathering in impatient anticipation of a hot meal. Mario instructed us on how to handle the individual food boxes (cardboard folding “to go” numbers that could hold individual servings for each person) and portion out the food responsibly. I took up my post at the rice trough (for so it seemed for its size), and began doling out what I hoped were generous enough portions of white rice. Donna would hand me a prepared box, I scooped in the rice, Angie scooped in the beans, Mario portioned the chicken, Lisa folded up the box, and Alisa furnished each with a plastic fork, while also conversing with the people and doing any necessary “crowd control.”

Our system was effective, and we soon had a swift-moving assembly line. From my position, I could see the line of expectant hungry locals wrapping around the block and growing, rather than shrinking. As each person came through the line, he or she greeted us with warm thanks for our efforts, specified which items were desired and how many boxes (we tried to maintain a limit of 3 per person), some shared bits of his or her own story, and then usually summed up with more thanks. It was clear that we were appreciated, even needed, there that day. Despite the cold and wet, few of our patrons were adequately dressed in warm, weather-appropriate garments. Some had coats and hats, and those that didn’t were offered a hand-knitted hat from a group of our members who had offered their talents to provide us with twenty or so hats. It didn’t take long for all of the hats to be distributed, and I felt little jolts of satisfaction when I saw several people come through the line wearing the hats throughout the afternoon.

Those that came through our line were diverse in many ways: men and women, some elderly, some middle- or teen-aged; some families of mothers and young children, some people in pairs, some single; white, black, Hispanic-American, Asian-American. Our patrons were all so different in age/gender/race, but similar in one respect – they had all suffered from the hurricane and welcomed the gift of nourishment from a pair of giving, nonjudgmental hands. Some people were more comfortable than others taking food from us, chatting in a friendly way, asking and even bargaining with Mario for more boxes. Others seemed less complacent, receiving his or her box with poorly veiled bitterness, managing to utter a gracious word while avoiding eye contact, possibly to avoid any pitying glances. We took care to greet everyone warmly and without ceremony, regarding each person as an equal, offering jokes or polite impersonal inquiries along with the food. In my desire to present unassuming modesty and approachableness, I was slightly thrown when one woman complimented me on my boots – I had worn the only pair of weather-proof footwear that I own: Coach rain boots. In dressing for the day, I hadn’t considered that my shoes might put distance between me and the people I had come to serve. The woman kindly admired them, remarked that they were in “real Manhattan-style.” I thanked her, but felt inwardly guilty and angry with myself for unwittingly giving anyone cause to perceive a sense of superiority that could pollute the honor and sincerity of our offerings. Perhaps the woman did not hold me in contempt for my B-level designer boots, but I regretted my decadence all the same.

Our “small but mighty team” shivered and served till the food was all but gone, and the line of hungry people had disappeared. We lingered to help Craig and Mario strike the tables, collect the food trays, and clean up the area as best we could, though they assured us that there wasn’t much cleaning to do. Rather than furnish us with brooms, Craig gave us each a plate of the food he had tirelessly prepared all day, having set aside enough for each of us to have a small portion. The warmth of the food would have been satisfying enough, but I was pleased at its simplicity and heartiness, and I defy any of those who partook of the meal to complain. After posing together for several group photos, we said goodbye to Craig and Mario, thanked them prodigiously for their efforts and their goodness, and bounded back to the van.

The van seemed a paradise of dry heat and comfort as we blasted the warm air to revive our flesh to resemble our spirits, already animated with the conviction of having done a measure of tangible good. Yet, the sensations that filled me as we drove back to Middle were not unmitigated; I felt a level of pleasure, tempered by gratitude, but tangled with guilt and emotional unrest, for though we spent the day huddled in the cold with the hungry masses, we had secure homes to welcome us back when the day was through. It was as though we had played our respective parts successfully on a stage, then retreated to the wings while the play continued, the curtain never falling. I don’t wish to detract from the value of one day’s good service, but I am left with the determination that this one day will be the first of many for me in such mission work.

About This Blog

Preparing ethical leaders for a just society. Posts by Jacqui Lewis, Senior Minister.

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