BY PEGGY FLANAGAN
Walking down Kingston’s Brock Street, the wind penetrating her thin jacket and dead leaves swirling around her ankles, a young woman looks up to see the simple sign: Martha’s Table. Jessie has been here before. She remembers how difficult it was to pass through that door the first time.
“The people who work here think they are good,” she reflects. “What do they give? Some time. Some donated food. I give more. I give up my dignity.”
Jessie doesn’t want to come here but she is poor and she is hungry.
The faithful elderly lady is at the entrance table as usual, greeting everyone with a smile and a few words of welcome. She even remembers Jessie’s name. The jar of candies sits on the table beside her. She encourages Jessie to help herself. Jessie likes the green ones best. She is proud that she has a dollar to pay for her meal.
“God, my feet hurt,” she groans. “I can’t wait to sit down.”
The menu is displayed in large, colourful print. Vegetable soup, salad, grilled chicken, mashed potatoes. Assorted desserts. Tea, coffee, juice.
Jessie sits at an unoccupied table because she doesn’t want to talk to anyone. She is too tired to notice the bright bouquet of fresh pink carnations in the centre of the clean white tablecloth. Jessie feels angry but she doesn’t know why. Perhaps it is better to feel anger than to feel sadness because it is easier to hide the tears and shame that way.
The volunteer waitress approaches. “Good evening.”
Jessie doesn’t look up. “It’s not a good evening for people like me,” she thinks to herself.
The volunteer begins to tell Jessie what is being served but Jessie interrupts and snaps: “I saw the menu. I’ll have the soup.”
The volunteer continues, “We also have –”
“I said what I wanted.”
Jessie’s sharp voice causes a couple of nearby heads to turn. The volunteer goes to fetch the soup, thinking what an ungrateful wretch she got stuck with this time.
When the volunteer returns with the soup, she sees that a customer from another table is now sitting beside Jessie, a hand on her shoulder, listening earnestly to her story.
Jessie looks up at the volunteer. “I’m sorry I snapped at you. I worked all day without a break and I haven’t had anything to eat since early this morning.” She goes on to relate how she cleans motel rooms part-time and how there were more rooms than usual to do that day.
The volunteer waitress notices the look of compassion on the face of the shabbily dressed man sitting at the table. She now is sorry and ashamed that she was so quick to judge Jessie unkindly.
Jessie stays to enjoy a hot meal. By the time it is topped off with chocolate cake and coffee, there are more new friends, including a young mother with two small children, sharing Jessie’s table and exchanging stories.
The volunteer thinks: “I help to feed their bodies, but they, without knowing, help to nourish my spirit.” The miracle is not only that those wonderful kitchen volunteers manage to feed 170 people with food prepared for an expected 130. The miracle is also that some folks, formerly isolated and depressed, have begun to feed one another servings of life-giving hope.
It is true, and may we never doubt the fact, that it is necessary to pressure government officials to respond justly to the needs of our most vulnerable citizens, but community happens when ordinary people in solidarity with other ordinary people listen to one another and share generously what they have.
As Jessie leaves Martha’s Table, she passes by the kind lady at the entrance, who gives her more green candies to put in her pocket. Then, she walks into the dark November evening with a lighter step, holding her head higher and feeling warmer than she did an hour ago.
The volunteer waitress goes home changed, too. She is grateful for places like Martha’s Table, but she understands better the anger of people down on their luck who, perhaps for the first time in their lives, must accept charity simply to survive another day in this rich country where governments have huge surpluses, where banks have record profits but where the lower classes slip deeper into the fear of not being able to feed and educate their children.
Sister Peggy Flanagan is a Sister of Providence, a retired elementary school teacher and a regular volunteer at Kingston, Ontario’s Martha’s Table, which provides food to low-income people for a nominal fee. She also made time in her busy schedule as general secretary for her religious congregation to join the community editorial board of The Whig-Standard, the daily newspaper in Kingston, Ont.