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Kurt’s Story

The semi-truck from Harvesters food bank was backing into the Franklin Center parking lot for our monthly, mobile food pantry. Some had already been waiting in their cars since 10am for the 2pm start. Typically, it takes around 25-30 volunteers, but this time we were short-handed. Seventeen thousand pounds of food was getting unloaded and I had one volunteer.

I wasn’t in a panic quite yet. Over the past few months, there had been a noticeable shift. Whereas before, we had relied on volunteers outside of Argentine to serve in portioning, sorting and distributing the pallets of food into household-sized shares, neighbors—the very recipients of all of those fresh fruits, vegetables, eggs and more—have been the ones stepping up and taking ownership. Amber and I could always count on Cristina to do the sign ups. Cesar would load up the vehicles and man the root vegetables. Mary, her sister Ramona and daughter Deanna, faithfully showed up with a fistful of plastic grocery sacks. Julieta would stuff greens. Jennifer would point out the cars who were cutting in line.

In November, we grilled out with a number of our Argentine volunteers at Martin and Cristina’s house and sketched out more plans of how to do this more efficiently and to invite more people in. We needed all the help we could get.

At December’s distribution, we were short-handed and we went vehicle-by-vehicle inviting others to help us ready the bags and boxes of food. Dozens came out of their vehicles, rubbing their hands together to stay warm and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers over string beans and crates of kale.

We got a glimpse of the future that day. To say that this moment was entirely unscripted, that the sense of community being birthed was merely a beautiful accident wouldn’t be accurate. It’s what we’d been dreaming and working towards—each month making steady steps and incremental improvements. So while necessity wasn’t entirely the mother of this social invention, it surely accelerated it.

That’s what I was pinning my hopes on that day as I stared at the flashing lights backing towards me. Cristina went into action going vehicle-by-vehicle inviting others to join. Familiar faces from last month’s distribution stepped out into the cold towing others with them. Most were immigrant mothers. Spanish was the lingua franca. Everyone got to work, tearing into pallets of potato salad and stacks of sweet tea. Laughter bubbled up. Competition broke out between tables. Cheers erupted. This is what we’ve been building for. This felt right.

Yet I still worried that my lone outside volunteer and I would be left stranded after the distribution began and the other volunteers would return to their vehicles to take their turns as recipients. They did leave, but they parked their cars as soon as they’d passed through the line and went right back to work. When the last car drove through and the pallets were empty, we were all exhausted and sweating but everyone stayed until the very end. While I never would have planned it this way, neither would I trade it.

For the rest of the evening I was flooded with a deep sense of gratitude to have been given the grace to experience this. Truth be told, there were many months that I was ambivalent about the mobile food pantry. I kept on doing it because so many of our friends and neighbors were so blessed by the abundance of it all—a monthly jubilee of sorts where they finally got cut a break in a world where they don’t catch a whole lot of breaks.

But of course those aren’t the things that you remember. Instead, you remember the random complaints. They’re always isolated, always the outliers, but the complaints are the ones that stick. The ones that poison the water. The ones that make you ask yourself why you do this. The ones that make you believe in the popular stereotypes of the poor when hundreds more have given you ample evidence to the contrary. A neighbor complains about traffic, another accuses someone cutting in line, telling you that you have no idea how to run this.

I had to work to keep those negative thoughts out of my mind, because I knew why I continued to do this. But I wasn’t sure why some of them stepped out of their cars when it’s a whole lot easier to stay put. Or maybe that question itself is wrong, because it puts me in a special kind of superhuman category—that simply because I haven’t known hunger or hardship like any of them that they don’t have the same hunger for meaning and purpose. Kathryn Edin’s research on the lives of those living in some of the poorest and most dangerous communities in the US suggests that people living in these environments will actually go to great lengths to craft a sense of meaning and identity in this void as a way to vanquish the negativity.

I suspect that this is what has been happening at our food distributions. Immigrant mothers, residents from the housing projects, day laborers—they all got out of their cars on cold winter days because instead of being the ones who always receive, they’d been given the dignity of giving. There’s a certain kind of shame and scorn that people in poverty often bear. No one wants to go through life with their hands out. But through the simple invitation to join in, they were given purpose.

In his book, Community: A Structure of Belonging, Peter Block says that people are committed to what they have had a hand in creating. “To belong to a community is to act as a creator and co-owner of that community.” It’s the opposite of entitlement, which always asks what’s in it for me. But no one asked the question, “What’s in it for me?” They already knew the answer. Their answer was just like mine. They joined because they were given purpose—invited on a mission to join God in bringing and being good news to our neighborhood.

Kurt Rietema, Director of Youthfront Justice Initiatives & President of the Franklin Center

To learn more about the Franklin Center, click here

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