I came across some reflections I wrote while bicycling across the country in 2010 as a part of “Cycling for Change”. The memory of this one remains fresh in my mind:
Many of us have heard this speech a hundred times, “In the unlikely event that there is a loss of cabin pressure, a mask will fall from a compartment above you, and provide you with oxygen…”.
We take for granted that on a journey we will be provided with our basic necessities. Air, water, food, safety. Most of us never consider a couple of the other “necessities” that we also take for granted… hope and dignity.
Wednesday (June 2, 2010), the Cycling for Change Team was provided lunch at St. Leo’s Church soup kitchen in Seattle, Washington. St. Leo’s provides breakfast and lunch meals for between 800 and 1,100 people every day, 5 days a week! As one of the staff people explained, the numbers tend to go up at the end of the month when people find that they have run out of money.
Our visit was at the start of the month, but the lunchroom, in a large former school built in the early 20th century, appeared filled to capacity. As I walked through the door I was not prepared for the sight or the sudden emotional impact. It was as if I had experienced a “sudden loss of cabin pressure”. However, there was no mask within my reach. Before me was the “3-D” version of a post-apocalypse vision that we have all seen so many times in science fiction movies. A crush of vacant eyed people, soiled and many wearing what amounted to tatters. I was to dine shoulder to shoulder with the people that Seattle had forgotten.
I proceeded to the food line and was handed a brightly colored compartmented tray, the kind that you would expect to see in a grade school. There was a bowl for the soup, but no plates. My meal consisted of a slice of lunchmeat between two pieces of white bread, a bowl of chili-like soup, and a single chocolate chip cookie. A soup kitchen that serves a thousand people a day from donations does its best by making do with what it gets. The same applies to those who are served. There was coffee, hot and excellent by any standard.
I moved to one of the long cafeteria tables and found a vacant folding chair between two of the center’s customers. I ate and visited with my “companions”. I was beginning to feel a sense of accomplishment in embracing the experience when my eye was drawn to a man seated across from me a few seats to my left. I was wrenched back into the reality that for everyone but me this was not a diversion, not just “an experience”… this was reality and this was life. Again, there was a loss of “cabin pressure”.
The “oxygen” that was rarified in the atmosphere of the room was the loss of hope. Most of us have experienced a momentary loss of hope, but few who read this know what it means to be without hope, and without prospect of finding hope… true hopelessness. In the soup kitchen I could scan the tables and see a face here and there that bore the signs of a life yet with hope. A father with his young son, the boy looking up to dad with the hero worship that any father lives for. A man and a woman looking deeply into each other’s eyes, sharing grimy gap-toothed smiles between words and bites of their meals. But the man who had caught my attention was not one of these, there was no visible sign of hope with him.
What caught my attention was that he visited with no one. He sat solitary, ramrod straight, eyes forward. His hair was as neatly combed as hair could be that had not seen shampoo for many days. His stained and worn clothing would not have been suitable for donation to a second-hand store but was arranged with care. From his leather-like and wrinkled complexion, he looked to be in his 50’s, but I suspect the ravages of a life without shelter had aged him prematurely. He might have been 40. He ate slowly, with deliberation… with dignity. Everything about him screamed his dignity. He wore dignity like it was armor. The man grew in my sight and became larger than life. Whatever the cause of his condition, whatever the story behind a life rendered hopeless, he taught me that dignity may be given, and it may be cast aside, but it is never taken from one who chooses to keep it. Dignity dies last.
Peace Everyone. Pete