By Donna Sprock
The wise man, or wise-guy, Stephen Colbert, once said: “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without conditions, and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”
My name is Donna Sprock, and I am the volunteer coordinator and kitchen organizer for the Meals Ministry at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula (UUFP). A little over 15 years ago, I stepped into the amazing shoes of Shirley Grice, who had been our kitchen organizer for PORT (People Offering Resources Together), LINK's* emergency winter shelter program, when she wanted to step back and let a younger generation take up the work. I was a little intimidated by the idea, but let Shirley’s example inspire me. Fortunately for me, she had a lot of great recipes that serve dozens of people! I talked to her, took lots of notes, and tackled my first PORT night. I was surprised to find that I have a knack for planning, shopping, organizing, and directing enthusiastic volunteers to create a meal for 100 people!
Ten years ago this month, in July 2008, the UUFP took on a new mission—to serve meals at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Newport News to people in our local community who are food-insecure. Our first day there was a Saturday. I had raided a friend’s garden and brought a lot of fresh summer squash and tomatoes, with the garden soil still on them! We worked with Reverend Isabel Steilberg and Pat Morrell to learn how to cook in their kitchen and how to minister to the people in the downtown, Newport News, area. I don’t remember the full menu that day, but I do know we made a hot lunch that included beef and vegetable soup with our fresh from the garden vegetables. We even had work for the kids, because we made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for bag lunches. It was a great experience and everyone wanted to do it again. We were able to volunteer for four or five Saturdays a year, and as we gained experience we decided that we really wanted to do more. After a couple of years, we were able to take a monthly slot on the third Friday night of every month. Over time our skills and recipes evolved into the program that we are today. And now we have added the first Friday of every month, as well.
It is incredibly rewarding work; work that I personally believe has made me a better, more compassionate person. I don’t expect the people I help to change or “get better.” I don’t expect or want their gratitude. They don’t even have to like the food. I just try to treat them with respect—and remember that they are still people, too. At St. Paul’s we cook a hot meal, always including fresh vegetables and fruit, and serve it to our guests. Then, once everyone has a plate, we volunteers take a plate of food and sit down at the tables with the people we are there to help. We don’t all gather at one table, separate to ourselves. We spread out, one or two of us to each table. I say, “May I join you?” I put down my plate, pull up a chair, and then we talk. What do we talk about? The usual things—sports, the news, the weather. I’m often asked about the UUFP, what kind of church it is. And answering that question usually leads to very interesting conversations. “You accept everybody?” I often hear. And convincing them that we accept all beliefs often takes a while. It’s funny how acknowledging that we even accept atheists here is often the final proof! So of course, I’m asked what UU’s believe. And my answer is “It depends on the UU. But what we all believe is that a person’s beliefs or disbeliefs in God, or gods, or goddesses, are that individual's own business. It’s not up to a UU to tell anyone what to believe. We don’t have any creeds, but we do have a set of principles that address what we truly care about—which is how we treat each other.”
Besides being just neighborly, it gives the person a weapon to fight the isolation, depression and paranoia that many homeless people face. I try to put that old Golden Rule into action.: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Treat others the way you want to be treated.
There is another saying I try to put into action, one that at first seems to conflict with the Golden Rule. That is: "There is no free ride." But I don’t apply this to the people I’m there to help. I apply it to myself. It pertains to all of us. Every one of us has inherited benefits and developments from generations past, and each of us lives in a network of the labor of others. In order to keep that human network going, each one of us must contribute back to it. It is not always true that if you watch out for others, others will watch out for you. But you are more likely to get out of something what you put into it—from study, to relationships, to society. And the farthest that anyone is allowed to fall in your society is the farthest that you will be allowed to fall. If no one is allowed to starve, you will never starve. If it is unacceptable that anyone be outside without shelter, you will never be outside without shelter. If the dignity and civil rights of all persons—including those who annoy you—are respected, your own dignity and civil rights are safer, too. I believe these values inform all of the work our volunteers and I do at St. Paul’s and PORT.
Our 10th anniversary at St. Paul's is this month. I honestly think of it as a good beginning to good work. I feel fortunate to have found something that I am good at which also helps other people. I feel incredibly blessed that others in the UUFP also want to help and support the meals ministry. I think we all find the work to be enjoyable and important. So many people in the UUFP share my love for this meals ministry and believe in its value. I consider it a sort of yoga for the soul and believe we receive as much benefit from the program as our guests do. I don’t know how to express the depths of my gratitude for the opportunity to do this work. I can only hope you might consider joining me.
*LINK: Living Interfaith Network