This Sunday morning I awoke at 6:00 am. Yes, it was early. But not that bad, considering that by 9:00 I’d done a good deed for the week and already felt like I’d made something of my day. I hopped on my bike, rode about a mile south of my house to Uptown, and cooked breakfast for the homeless.
We’re not talking soup-kitchen style volunteering, though. Oh no. Far better! This was at the Inspiration Cafe. I’ve long volunteered here, since the days I was 16 and seeking community service hours in high school. At the time, Inspiration was run out of a basement, a shoe-string budget, and was serving about 30 people. It was still a big step up from their roots, in 1989, serving meals out of a red wagon. These days, it is a vibrant non-profit, which continues doing great work. They have a full open-to-the-public restaurant, culinary training courses for its clients, catering, and are even selling aprons and locally-roasted fair-trade organic coffee over the internet.
The basic idea: the homeless/mentally ill/ unemployed/ recovering substance abusers deserve dignity. Getting out of these tough situations is not just about getting free meals, as most soup kitchens or shelters would have it. Instead, Inspiration thinks about it as a question of developing healthy human interactions, by being treated with respect and dignity. Giving people contact with case workers, and offering free food to people who have a commitment to improving their conditions, is a great way to start. When you throw a little job training, life-skills training, and case-worker support into the picture, things start to change, bit by bit.
This morning made me think a lot about the power of food – especially in restaurant settings. It helped me think about some of the basic components of dignity in those situations- that you can send something back if you’re dissatisfied, you are entitled to be particular about how you want your eggs, and to be able to have blueberries in your fruit salad and whole-grain fresh bread even if the food is free, and you’re unemployed or homeless. I was reminded that getting better at treating yourself with respect and getting treated with respect by other people is probably one of the biggest ways to ‘do something good.’ The acts of dining and of cooking are essential to how it begins – you draw people in with food – and through the simple act of doing something both simple and creative, get a hook which seems to work pretty well at making situations better for people.
Special thanks to Willy, Dan, and my dad Stan for all the smiles and jokes as we scrambled eggs, cooked the bacon, and made those hash browns!