Finding God in a soup kitchen

SERVE group takes mass at Reedemer House in Toronto before volunteering in the city. (Submitted)

The poster was simple: “Come and join us for five weeks next spring!” with a photo of eight people smiling on the front steps of a house. I walked past it every day on my way to class and rarely gave it more than a glance.

If I had extra time, I would slow down and peruse the details in the brochures on the table beneath it. “S.E.R.V.E.: Summer Endeavour in a Redemptorist Volunteer Experience…For young adults age 18-30. Join us for five weeks of spiritual and personal formation as we seek to serve Christ in our neighbour!”

Several times I took a brochure and shoved it into my book bag, eventually to discard it into the recycling bin or to leave it sitting on my desk for weeks on end, safely buried beneath newspapers and notepads.

I thought about applying on and off for most of the winter. When I finally did decide to fill out the application, I had something like a week and a half left before the Mar. 1 deadline for applications and references. I was able to Xpress-post my papers to the address given in the brochure.

During March break, I had a telephone interview with Father Santo. I remember getting off the phone and thinking it was one of the oddest conversations I had ever had.

Within a few days of that interview, I got another phone call from Fr. Santo, this time telling me that I had been selected as a participant for S.E.R.V.E. if I still wanted to do it.

I was ecstatic.

When the initial euphoria faded, I began questioning my sanity. Why was I doing this again? Did I really want to go hang out with a bunch of Jesus freaks for five weeks? What if they tried to recruit me as a nun?

After the letter with the check list for S.E.R.V.E. arrived, I worried about my clothes. As clothing goes, mine would generally be deemed conservative. My shirt of choice during the winter is a turtleneck, and in the spring and summer I keep my shoulders covered.

But in the letter it said “no extremely form-fitting or revealing clothing.”

 ***

 Around 3 p.m. on Apr. 30, I arrived at Redeemer House in downtown Toronto.

Everyone in SERVE came together for mass and prayer at least once a day. We alternated between morning mass and evening prayer, and morning prayer and evening mass.

We all took turns planning morning and evening prayer, and we tried a lot of different ways of praying. We also took turns planning mass, which meant picking the songs and asking people to read.

I was sent to St. Felix Centre to help with the lunch and after school programs. For the next five weeks, Monday to Friday, I left Redeemer House at 9 a.m. and walk through Chinatown and a housing co-op to arrive at St. Felix at 9:15 a.m.

Our days there would start in the kitchen with Ben, the chef for the free lunch provided to homeless and low-income people. Depending on the time of the month and the weather, we served lunch for 60 to 130 people. Most days we planned for 80.

We chopped vegetables, sliced bread and made sandwiches and soups with the other volunteers and the Felician Sisters.

Once the food was ready, we set up for service and brought out dishes and cup and started the coffee and the tea. We said the Lord’s Prayer and someone would ask a blessing on the meal and the people eating it.

At 11:00 a.m., Sister Eileen would open the door and hungry people would come downstairs to the dining room.

I remember Nora. She is mentally ill. Most of the time she didn’t talk much. She would just sit down and ask for apple juice. We didn’t always have apple juice to serve and she would get agitated if there wasn’t any.

Sometimes, when it slowed down, I would sit and talk with her. Mostly she mumbled things and I repeated them until she was satisfied I had understood.

She told me about her life in Vancouver before she came to Toronto, or that she was scared that someone was going to get her. I spent a lot of time reassuring her and eventually she called me her friend.

The afters chool program was simpler. We helped kids with their homework and then took them outside to play foursquare. The first two weeks we were there, I was ridiculed daily by kids in Grades 3 and 4 because I was so terrible at the game.

Some of the kids acted pretty tough. If I asked how their day had been at school, they would say, “Why you asking so many questions? It ain’t none of your business. Leave me alone. Stop bothering me.”

Until I went to St. Felix, I thought I was pretty good with kids.

***

At the end of the five weeks, I went home to my parents’ house with a plaque depicting the Washing of the Feet by Sieger Koder, a tripod, a jar of salt with a candle in it. And it was at that moment I decided I had a repaired, much healthier relationship with God and my Catholic faith for reasons far too personal to go into.

I took home memories of what I can only describe as the hardest, most wonderful weeks of my life, and an understanding of vocation as “where your deepest joy meets the world’s greatest need” because God does not call us to do anything there is not already a yearning for in our hearts.

I’m no longer worried about being called to become a nun, because a) my chest did not hurt of happiness at the idea of being a sister the way it does at the idea of being an associate to a religious community and b) if I do end up being called for that, I still have two years of university left to work it out anyways. God is surprising, but He knows me better than I know me, and it’ll all work out somehow.

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