The people who serve at Food Not Bombs, are among the best I know. They bring peace through food, understanding through kindness. They share what they have with no questions and no reservations to everyone who shows up. These good people are not afraid to love. I’ve written about FNB before (Food Not Bombs, Food Not Bombs II) and I guess that I’ll write about it occasionally as long as I keep posting on this blog.
For those who don’t know, FNB is an idea that is elegant in its simplicity. People with food come to serve people who need food. It’s at Finley Park in downtown Columbia, SC. It happens at 1:00 on Sunday afternoons in the parking lot at the top of the fountain.
Every time I return from FNB I am left with images of the people and events. It is truly one of the best times of my week. It’s not a laugh-a-minute or anything like that, although we do laugh. It can be intense from time to time. Some of these people are desperate. It’s not so tender that it makes you want to cry. But I have. And I do.
Once, in the fall I recognized and served the son of a colleague. I had not seen him since he was a high schooler. It had been years, but he recognized me too and we greeted each other warmly. The next week, I saw him there again. This time he was serving from a pot of some bachelor food.
Today I was standing next to a kid who was about 11 or 12 years old. He was funny and engaging. He was spooning out canned mixed carrots and peas. These are vegetables I like a lot but, apparently, many of the folks going through the line don’t. While my dish was going very quickly, the veggies next door were not moving very fast. At first while the folks came through the line and asked “Wha’s that?” to me I said, “It’s kind of like Hamburger Helper.” After a while the name morphed into “Cheesy Pasta and Beef” and then into “Three Cheese Pasta – Supreme”. My neighbor started doing this cute hard sell with the folks passing by his wares. “C’mon, it’s vegetables… You know they’re good for you… If your mom were here, she'd make you eat 'em... It’s like taking vitamins! When was the last time you had vitamins?” He was charming. His dad was kind of hovering around keeping an eye on his boy. Don’t you know, folks started getting more veggies and the boy lit up. Dad beamed proudly at his son.
Ira, the man who gives out tickets and warns us about not giving out too much (“Watch the portions! We have 75 more to go!”) walks up and down the line, chatting, greeting folks by name. He tries to make sure that every person only takes one plate and a few do take advantage but there is usually a lot of food to go around. At the beginning of the line Tom and Judy Turnipseed always have huge pots of greens and potato salad. When they run out, you know we have had a lot of folks going through the line. Maris and Tim are towards the beginning of the line. Maris has grapes and different kinds of cheeses. There is a group of beautiful Asian ladies with the absolute best food. Today it was sausages with broccoli and onions. They got there after we had already started serving but the line stopped and reversed for a few minutes until the people in front got some of their delicious offerings.
As people walk through the line they get a little of this and a dab of that. The idea is to bring something that you can put on 150 plates. So portions are small but… there are so MANY portions. Some are meticulous about not mixing their foods and delicately slide the food around so there is a place for everything. Others just say to pile it on top. You hear a dozen times, “It’s all going to the same place,” or some derivation of that.
There was one fellow who came through the line this time who I had never seen before. I could not tell his age. He had been burned very badly some time in his life. His face and neck were webs of scar tissue. He wore a baseball cap and an eye patch over one eye. What struck me most about him was his sincere gratitude. He thanked every single server, whether or not he took what they offered. He looked me square in the face and God Blessed me. I thanked him and said that now that he knew we were here to please come back. He said he would and shuffled off to thank the next server in line. And I did feel blessed. So blessed.
I know very few names, but I know who comes often, who shows up occasionally and who are the newcomers. One of the regulars came through and was really happy. He is an older gentleman. He usually wears a baseball cap. The old style with the high crown. He walks slowly with a cane. He beamed and we exchanged our usual “How ya doin’s?” A short time later, he was eating his big plate of food, sort of leaning up against the wall and he tipped his Styrofoam plate and some food fell off. Then he rocked to the side. Something was wrong. He reached out and grabbed the wall, his head down. His legs buckled and he dropped to the ground. People were there to help him in a heartbeat. Folks I see every week, some of them homeless, some down on their luck, were down on their knees with him, giving advice, showing concern, demonstrating that they cared about him. A woman prayed out loud for him. By the time I left he was back on his feet, embarrassed by all the fuss.
There is another fellow who always wears the same thing. Sunglasses, a scarf and cap, gloves with the fingertips cut off and an army fatigue coat (even on the warmest days). Most often I see him with this portable chess set, a lit cigarette between his lips, deep in thought over a game, a cloud of smoke encircling his head. I understand he’s pretty good.
Today I saw this little guy, I can’t remember his name, Larry? Gary? He sometimes brings a guitar and strums a tune or two and sings with great enthusiasm. It’s always nice to see him. His face is older than his real age. Once, when the food was passed out and he had his guitar we swapped a couple songs. It was fun. Neither of us is very good at playing, but that wasn’t the point. I gave him a ride when we were cleaned up. He led me down a few blocks and said to let him out at this corner. He lived in the woods in a tent and he didn’t want me to see his place. I had a five in my pocket and gave it to him. He God Blessed me in a big way. And I felt it.
I ran out of “Three Cheese Pasta Supreme” pretty early today. There were still about twenty-five people in line. I gathered up my pot and utensils and said good-bye to the folks in line. As I was heading to my car I heard the most beautiful singing at the beginning of the line. Two women in the food line were singing to the Turnipseeds. “I Wanna Be Ready When Jesus Comes!” Stunning. Harmony, big old grins on everyone’s faces. Tom and Judy clapped. All around appreciated it.
The thing about FNB is that I get out of it so much more than I put into it. How could I not? It is sobering. But it is important. Sad and joyful, serious and fulfilling. It is a steady dose of reality that fills me up and makes me grateful.