Roy stands casually in front of the small wooden podium and raps on the wood with his knuckles. He runs this place.
“For those of you who have never been here before, welcome to Friday Morning Breakfast.” Roy’s voice booms. “When you come here, you’re going to get fed, and you’re going to get fed spiritually. We believe Jesus has the power to deliver you from whatever you’re dealing with.”A few scattered amens come out awkwardly, like the last few kernels of popcorn. They bounce around the whitewashed tile walls of the First Lutheran Church of Waco.
John looks like Bill Murray, his soft face too young for the gray streaks in his hair. He struggles with his name. The J sound comes out clear but the rest gets stuck in his throat. He makes the talking signal with his right hand and shakes his head side to side.
“John, it’s good to meet you.” I extend my hand. “I’m Vince. I want you to know that I care about you.” My words are forced, but his genuine handshake and disarming smile put me at ease. John pulls out a speckled black-and-white pocket notebook and begins scribbling down letters and numbers. He carefully tears out the piece of paper and slides it across the table. There are three lines. The first says “82-86 Air Force.” The next reads “87 car accident.” The third, “12 days coma.”
“You got in an accident, John?” John turns an imaginary steering wheel with his right hand while his left hand raises an imaginary beer to his mouth. He’s telling me his story through the game of charades.
“Oh…that kind of accident…I’m sorry.” My words come out flimsy and plastic, like a Happy Meal toy. John furrows his brow and nods solemnly.
Around the dimly lit church basement, more than a hundred people engage in conversation. Mission Waco, a local non-profit, has been putting on these breakfasts in this basement since 1993. Different groups of volunteers from churches or clubs come in every week to cook a meal for the homeless, while individual volunteers come to simply sit at the tables with the homeless and enter into their life for sixty short minutes.
Roy calls out the tables by number and the line builds up near the food. I make my way to the end of the serving table and begin pouring milk into Styrofoam cups. Everyone says thank you, and almost everybody smiles. This place feels more church potluck than soup kitchen.There are hints of where we are, though.
The scent hits you first. It oscillates between the subtle: a damp, mildew-y scent you smell when you didn’t hang your towel up, and the not so subtle: garbage truck fumes from the curb scent. Another hint comes from watching the margarine bucket. The volunteer to my left smears huge swaths of Blue Bonnet on each person’s plate. Some ask for it on top of their eggs. Others want it next to their biscuits and mountain of grape jelly. When you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, you don’t take it easy on the margarine
The seconds line is dwindling, and we begin to put the food away. I see John over in the corner packing up his stuff in a military-green backpack, so I walk over there. Using hand signals, the notepad, and a few words, he tells me that he’s leaving on Monday for Virginia.
Anxiety creases his face, and there’s fear in his eyes. I extend my arms, and John practically falls into them. He pats me twice on the back awkwardly and then comes out of the bear hug with his hand extended for another shake. He sandwiches my hand with both of his and stutters out a “thank you.” I ask John if I can pray for him. He nods eagerly. I pray a blessing over him and his trip. When I open my eyes, he wants another hug. It’s only slightly less awkward than the first.
John grabs his bag, says goodbye, and walks out the side exit. I head into the kitchen to find Roy and ask him why he puts this on every week.
“Why do I do this? Mainly just because I feel like we’re supposed to be the hands and feet of Jesus. We’re supposed to be able to help the same people that Jesus helped all the time.” Roy takes a breath and keeps going. His elbow is propped up on the countertop. There is passion in his voice. “I’d much rather talk to the crazy, homeless people than normal people. They’re looking for God…they’re looking for somebody just to care about them, talk to them. I’d much rather talk to homeless people.”
Me too, Roy. Me too.
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.