Time to wrap up the holidays. Let’s go out for dinner!
By Mike Smith
Welcome (and goodbye) to the Christmas Season. Last weekend was the eighth annual Christmas Dinner for the Homeless at our church. When we started doing this there were about 30 people who attended. This time we had 30 volunteers and over 120 people. From what we can ascertain we are the party to go to for the homeless and poor families in Renton. It doesn’t seem that big a deal to us, but as my wife says: They never get to go to office parties or any of the parties and dinners we take for granted. This is their version of that.
We had a fun discourse about what the conversations between homeless guys around Renton might be like.
“So, will you be attending the Refuge Christmas Party this year?”
“Oh yeah, Dude, wouldn’t miss it! I’m not going to drink all day till it’s over. Don’t want to miss anything.”
“Do you think we’ll get to have seconds this year?”
“I wonder if there will be another fight.”
I wasn’t much of a participant this year. I just kind of milled around and took a couple of pictures. Some of the attendees are regulars around town. They live in their cars and come to the party for the food and to see old friends. Some of the attendees actually do live in the street but lend a hand to help cook, clean, and organize. They are very grateful for the meal. They like the respite from their normal daily miserable existences, self-inflicted as they often are. And they feel like a part of the planning committee as they do their best to make the party a success. I think it makes them feel a little like “normal” people. The rest of the revelers were families–women and children who stay at the overnight shelter that is housed at the church.
Some of the folks are pretty incredible. There was one girl there who is staying in the shelter. She came here from Vietnam. She was sponsored by her uncle and at some time in the last ten years he disappeared and left her homeless. Currently attending Renton High School, she is on the gymnastics team. She just finished applying to the University of Washington next year. She wants to be a Pediatrician, she has maintained a 3.7+ grade point average. All while living the last year at a shelter, alone. Her family lives in Vietnam.
Our “Chef” is named Paddy. He is a street guy. The last time I saw him was last Christmas time. He has a talent around the kitchen. Our church has a commercial kitchen and he seems to know his way around one. He is a good motivator and is able to put out a pretty tasty meal for 120 people. The reason we hadn’t seen him for a year is that he got upset last winter with someone at the community meal and sort of disappeared. Then he was hit by a car in July and was in the hospital and physical therapy for a couple of months. He walks with a substantial limp, but was in his element in the kitchen. Last Christmas he had composed a song and with my wife’s help, directed a small band and choir to perform his piece at the dinner. When he popped back into the picture last week, he fully expected to work in the kitchen and even asked if we could get the choir together again.
Yes on the kitchen, no on the choir. The music was already scheduled.
My wife and I firmly believe, and have noticed, that everyone (homeless or not) has a unique gift: an ability to take care of themselves. This talent is something that could enable them to make a living and even to be able to care for someone else. The trick, of course is to help them find out what that talent is, or at least to rediscover it. And after it is found, to cultivate it and protect it from being diluted by drugs or alcohol. This is becoming our new focus. Trying to figure out what it might look like to help those who are willing to get back into society. Some are not willing. Hard as it is to believe, they haven’t hit bottom yet. Or at least the bottom hasn’t dropped out of the bottom yet.
But the Christmas dinner is becoming a Renton Tradition. I don’t think most people in Renton know about it, but the “little people” of Renton certainly keep the tradition alive. My wife bumped into a guy who lived at the shelter a year ago. He asked if we were having the Christmas Dinner this year as he wanted to come down and celebrate and help if he could. He had an ironic meal. This is a guy who used to “retrieve” his meals from garbage cans and lived in a shelter. Now he has a job and a place of his own. After he was finished eating he went to one of our strategically placed garbage cans to throw away his scraps. He discovered that several guests had simply thrown their plate and silverware into the garbage cans. So there he was, dumpster diving again. Pulling out plates and dumping the food off of them so they could be washed and reused. A reversal if I ever saw one.
I noted that we had more servers this year than we had guests our first year. We thought we had a huge crowd way back then. Today, it took 1 hour and forty-five minutes to finally serve the last person. Yup, despite our shoot-from-the-hip planning method, we had just enough food. One person walked in after the food was gone, but that person was a vegetarian. Not sure we can count that. Who goes to a free community Christmas Dinner and expects a particular dietary offering? We had salad left over but that was declined. My guess is that the person in question was not that hungry.
It’s always a good time at the meal. Every year is different, but that is not our doing. It simply is a festival of unintended chaos. But it is decidedly quite orderly compared to some of the lives we touch.
Anyone is welcome of course. And they might even get a new coat!
Merry Christmas, everyone. Eat well. Remember those who are less fortunate. But still, eat well.