Saturday night has rolled around again – the highlight of my week. Four of my friends and I pack into a car and head off to volunteer at Hope Kitchen, a local soup kitchen. We join volunteers from other neighborhood churches to serve soup and sandwiches to guests who arrive desperately hungry, but also starved for love.
Before opening, we meet shortly for Bible reading, singing, and prayer. Though from different denominations, we are united in our love for one another and our desire to serve the poor. Heartfelt prayers for the guests soon to arrive set the tone for the evening; it’s obvious that the presence of Jesus is needed here.
“Hi there, sister!” My prayerful reverie evaporates as Sean strides in. He grins wickedly and tries to snag the entire tray of cookies from the table where I’m serving tea and coffee. Sean is an Irish Catholic with a fiery temper. His face shows the ravages of fights and binge drinking. Although I don’t know much about his background, I’ve talked with him enough to know that his belligerence is born of suffering.
Sean once tried to argue with me over a biblical point I thought unimportant. The more I downplayed it, the more obnoxious he became. I decided to ignore him, turning to talk to another guest. Sean sobered instantly. “Honestly, Hannah, I just wanted to know – what do you believe? Why on earth are you here?” Then he pelted me with questions about my faith and God.
Tina asks for coffee next. She flips open her ever-present album to show me photos of her beloved pets, alongside clippings of pop stars she’d like to meet, while cheerfully disregarding the impatient mutters in the long line behind her. She is burdened by mental and physical challenges, but her happy demeanor always shines through. Later, I watch her sneak up mischievously behind unsuspecting guests and volunteers, pouncing on them with a stuffed monkey, her latest toy.
A young man I’ve never seen before walks in. His arms are covered with tattoos, but his face looks…well, normal. Why would he be here? Twenty-four-year-old Zack tells me he came back from Afghanistan a couple years ago and now suffers from PTSD: “I can’t hold down a job, can’t sleep at night, keep having flashbacks. Want to see where I was shot?” He reveals scars on his knee and ankle, then gazes at me intently. “Do you see the tear tattooed by my left eye? That’s for my dad. He died when I was a teenager. I joined the army, thinking it might fill the hole, and now I’m worse off than before. I still cry for my dad every day.”
Forty-five-year-old Matt was ten when his eight-year-old brother died in his arms of meningitis. They had both arrived home from school ahead of their parents when “he just said he felt sick, and then suddenly he was covered in purple blotches. I tried to call my parents, but it was too late.” Matt blamed himself for his brother’s death, but his final derailment happened a few years later, after his mother died of a broken heart, and his father from a terminal illness. Matt tried to drown his sorrow in drink, and became a slave to alcoholism.
Each Saturday I encounter so many precious souls, each broken in mind or body by tragedy. With a sense of futility I watch the line of suffering humanity file out at closing time. What is our responsibility as Christians in the face of such need? Is it merely to feed the poor and clothe the naked? Or is it also to pray for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which would equip our churches with the power to drive out demons, heal the sick, and raise the dead, as Jesus himself promised? What would happen if Peter or Paul volunteered at Hope Kitchen today? Are those of us who claim to be followers of Christ truly representing the heart of the Gospel message as they did?
As we support charitable causes such as Hope Kitchen, I hope we bear in mind Peter’s words in Acts 3: “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you, in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” The power of Jesus is the same today as it was then, when he said, “Take heart, your sins are forgiven.” Here lies the real hope for all who visit Hope Kitchen, whether volunteer or guest.
Note: All names of Hope Kitchen’s visitors have been changed.