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Serving others creates lasting impression

A few weeks ago on a chilly autumn evening, my 15-year-old son and I mixed huge bowls of green salad in the basement of Central United Methodist Church in downtown Spokane. By 4 p.m. a long line of hungry folks waited outside the church doors.

Since 1994 Shalom Ministries has been feeding the homeless and low-income residents of our city’s core. A small group of churches works together to provide funds and volunteers.

I heard about Shalom through volunteer chef extraordinaire John Olsen. Monday through Thursday, Olsen cooks a hot breakfast for those in need. On Monday evenings he returns to make dinner as well.

On this night he’d prepared huge vats of homemade chili, and peeled dozens of avocados for fresh guacamole. The retired optometrist had heart bypass surgery two and a half years ago. “I faced my own mortality,” he said. “I realized I’m lucky to be here. This is payback.”

The kitchen bustled as volunteers sliced bread, dished up potato salad and diced onions. Mark Bowman, a teacher at Mead High School, has been bringing his students here for more than four years. “I wanted to introduce North Side kids to the core of downtown,” he said. As dinnertime approached, he organized his group of students, along with Alex and me on the serving line.

“Smile,” he said. “Make eye contact.” And then they opened the doors. Hundreds of people streamed into the basement room and filled the round tables. Many had their beds on their backs. Weighed down by sleeping bags, tarps and blankets they juggled trays of food and steaming cups of coffee.

“Would you like bread?” I asked. “Yes, please,” most replied. I looked into faces creased with exhaustion, into eyes that skittered and darted. I noticed the hands of those we served. Trembling hands gray with dirt, mottled hands that looked blue and white from cold. Next to me Alex served dessert. “Would you like some apple crisp?” he asked. We both remembered to smile.

The sounds of laughter, conversation and spoons scraping bowls soon filled the room. When they were finished many came back to the food line. “Thank you,” they said. “God bless you.”

When the crowds thinned Alex stacked chairs. Then we took off our aprons and gloves and drove home. We were silent for a while. “I saw some kids my age,” Alex finally said. “They looked worn down. Being there makes me grateful for our family dinner table.”

Later, as I cleared that table, I remembered something longtime volunteer E.J. Foerster said when asked why he serves with Shalom. He said, “I try to be here every Monday because it feeds me to see the ‘other’ in me.” By the end of the evening, I understood what he meant. The hungry and the homeless include mothers just like me, and teens just like Alex.

As the familiar chorus of good nights wafted through our home, thoughts of the other in me filled my mind. I remembered the first person in line for dinner. She was an elderly woman with wispy, white hair escaping from her woolen hat. I thought of the sturdy mustached man with dirt-caked work boots and a Carhartt jacket who asked for extra helpings of Olsen’s fresh guacamole. And most of all I remembered the young boy whose oversize sweat shirt hung low over baggy athletic shorts that brushed his ankle. He’d brought his band instrument with him to dinner.

In one evening, in the basement of a downtown church, my son and I discovered hunger has many faces. And once seen, those faces are hard to forget.