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A single roll of toilet paper

Random reflections from time at the Community Breakfast

By Hunter Torres

For the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Fr. Bill shared his sermon We Are in this Together, where he asked several parishioners to share a brief encounter, an image, or a feeling that relates to the following passage: I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them. (John 14:15-20).

My daughter is 13 years old.  She’s beautiful and shy.  Her job today is to sit at a table near the exit with a large box of toilet paper and hand out the allotted “one roll per guest” when people are on their way out.  The guests have to stop at her table and ask her for a roll.

When I walk by, I notice a large man standing in front of her.  He looks to be in his late twenties.  He’s probably 6’3”.  He wears his pants far below his waist, and all his clothes are emblazoned with one or another familiar logo.  He’s a young black man without mainstream status or means.  She’s a younger white girl with all kinds of advantages in life. He has to ask her for the gift of a roll of toilet paper.  She has to look at him, offer it up, and wish him a good day.  I am blown away by the humbling nature of this exchange, on both sides.  I don’t think I will ever forget it.

There is a boy who catches my attention every time I see him.  He looks to be about nine years old.  His face is round, brown, placid.  He doesn’t speak.  He stands in the shadow of his father.  He gets cereal and toast.  He looks scared and sad.  He looks like he’s seen more than his share of difficult days.  I want him to know that I see him.  That I see him every time we are both there.  That I am there because he needs cereal and toast. That I drag my daughters out of bed early on a Saturday, because we said we would be there for him, and I don’t want to let him down.

There’s another one who catches my attention every time.  (Hell, they all do.)  She looks traumatized, shell-shocked.  She looks like she’s been handed the worst of everything in life.  She is large, dark-skinned, solitary, bug-eyed.  She doesn’t share the easy camaraderie of the others.  She sits at a table by herself and avoids contact. Sometimes the Rector goes and sits with her.  Sometimes I stop and tell her hello, ask her how she’s doing, ask if I may take her tray. I wonder what has happened to her, what horrors she has seen, where she will go when she leaves.

Someone is mad that I gave them the wrong toast. That the toast is too burned.  Not burned enough.  Now my daughter is running the industrial toaster, and flames shoot out.  This is exciting for everyone.  A volunteer of many years comes and cajoles the old machine back into compliance.  We make more toast.

Some guests have fancy phones.  My daughters wonder how that could be.

There’s a man who is 87 years old.  He’s there every time we serve.  I love to visit with him and hear the stories of his life. Long ago he was the son of a slave, living on a plantation in the south, and someone saw him for his worth.  They made a phone call to Detroit.  Helped him fill out a job application even though he couldn’t read or write his own name.  He worked at GM on the factory floor for nearly 40 years.  He’s a steady, gracious man.  He’s proud of his daughter, who’s busy in Boston with a business career.  He’s not sure quite what it is that she actually does, but she calls him every week, and his face lights up when he describes her to me.  He’ll talk for an hour if I have the time to listen.

There are toddlers in pajamas.  I want to help the mama manage them, but she doesn’t want my help.

And there is always “C.”  My dear friend, C.  He is so happy to see me.  He just loves me to pieces.  I can’t not show up, because I know C will be looking for me, and he would worry if I weren’t there.  He’s proud of my daughters for me.  He’s praying for my family every day, and he’s thanking God for letting our paths cross with his.  I often ask C more about himself.  How is he doing?  How is his mother?  What is he doing for work now?  What is bringing him happiness lately, what is on his mind?   But C won’t go deeper.  He just wants me to know he loves me, and he’s just waiting until he sees me again, God willing, praise Jesus.  I wish I could see beneath the surface of C.   I wish he would be real with me.   But I am always looking for him, always so happy to see him.  I know C has my back.

There’s a man who is just plain mad.  He doesn’t want any small talk.  He just wants breakfast, goddammit.  He doesn’t want anybody to smile at him and say nice things.  He wants us all to shut up and leave him alone, and I really can’t say that I blame him.  I get it.  Our kind intentions are just a slap in the face of his reality, and the systemic injustices that fuel it.

There is a professional chef who comes as often as he is assigned to us.  My daughters are a little afraid of him, but I tell them chefs have to be strict to make meals happen at that scale.  Plus, I know how to disarm him: I just give him all the respect he deserves.  I really appreciate Chef.  I appreciate that his corporate leaders see fit to invest in this program – that through his talents our guests get professional quality cooking every now and then.  I love that he tells me how to manage the cream of wheat so that it doesn’t get gummed up. I love that he loves his daughters, the last of whom is now heading to college.  I love the way all these lives (including mine) and these moments intersect.

My youngest daughter specializes in very big smiles.  She’s happiest when she gets the job of dispensing hot cereal.  She looks at people with her enormous eyes, and she carefully scoops out what they ask for.  Is that enough?  Do you want some more?  She tries to remember which three guests are the ones who like their Cream of Wheat and Oatmeal mixed together.  There’s brown sugar if you want it.  She’ll bring it to your table.

And then there is the bag man.  He must be a hundred years old, but he could be only 50.  He wears everything he owns.  He straps on water bottles, bags, coats.  All told, he’s probably got 10 layers.  An unlit half cigarette is perennially perched between his lips.  His skin is weathered, dirty – he smells like urine, garbage, and the street.  His hands shake when he tries to carry his tray, so we carry it for him.  He sits at the round tables and takes the space of three or four.  He stays until it’s time to go.  We bring him more of everything.  I do not know his name.

Someone new I’ve never seen before does not seem okay. He’s a yellow-haired guy, haggard and thin, and he’s shaking all over.  I find the social services representative in her neat, dark blue uniform, and I bring the two together.  Is it really so 1:1 that we must save each soul?  How could we have created a society such as this?

When my girls and I began attending the Community Breakfast, the eldest of the clergy told me something I do not forget. He said, “These people don’t need to say Thank You.  We are not doing them a favor.  We are merely giving them the least of what they deserve, and they need not show gratitude.”

Sometimes the volunteers pray together before our shift begins.  One of the program coordinators will often ask for God’s guidance that we recognize each guest as the blessing they are, and that we seek to be blessed ourselves through conversation and connection with them.  I know that I am there to serve, but it’s my own humanity that is blessed for sure.

One day a woman who looked to be about my age asked me, “Why are you always smiling?  I see you walking around, and you always look so happy!  I don’t understand it.  I wish I could feel so happy.  There are so many reasons I don’t smile.”  I stood less than a foot from her, and we looked at each other – her truth laid bare, suggesting a life I could only imagine.

My truth is that my smile is spontaneous and relentless.  I can’t help it: when I am there, I feel joy.  I feel I am where I should be.  I love to go out to the tables, say hello to folks and ask if I may clear their trays.  I want to silently show them:

I see you.  Although there’s nowhere else in life where you are waited on, I want to wait on you. Although you can clear your own tray, I want to clear it for you.  I want to give you this moment of being seen and served, so that you might sit a little longer, and know that you are loved.

That’s it.
That’s why we go.
It’s an open channel to God’s love for us all, and my girls and I are just swimming in it, hearts open to all we are there to learn.