I was uncomfortable to say the least. From the moment my Uber pulled over and I stepped out of its pristine cleanliness onto the wet and trash littered sidewalk in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, I felt my guard go up. My shoulders tensed and my head swung left to right as I looked for number 232 Jones Street. The storefronts lined the sidewalk without a break, many of them plastered with posters, decorated with graffiti or marred by cracked glass and rust stains. Somber faced people passed on either side of the road without making eye contact with me, but somehow I knew they still saw me. The drone of traffic was occasionally broken up by people 20 feet away from each other shouting jokes, a woman babbling nonsense to herself as she pushed an overloaded shopping cart.
I stuck out like a sore thumb–clutching my purse, wearing clean Nike sneakers, eyes wide and afraid. This was not my suburban North Carolina sidewalk. I walked up it a few feet, counting the numbers before deciding that I’d gone too far and then turned around and retraced my steps. It was nestled in among buildings I’d just passed, and seeing the sign on the door, I breathed in relief:
San Francisco City Impact Mission
Opening the door I was greeted by a smiling young woman who invited me to sit while I waited for someone named Angelique, who had been emailing with me the week before and had given me instructions for meeting her at the City Impact office. When she emerged and introduced herself, she apologized as she confessed that she’d forgotten who I was and what I was doing there. I chuckled and repeated what I’d told her over email. My husband was in San Francisco for a work conference. I’d tagged along on his trip as a little vacation. I’d never been to San Francisco before and the trip was mostly pleasure, but I liked to take a little bit of time serving in a local mission as a way of getting to know the city and not spending my entire vacation solely focused on pleasing myself. Despite my altruistic explanation, there was a slight swell of pride in my chest as I spoke. I thought of the old Friends’ episode where Joey tells Phoebe that there is no such thing as a selfless good deed and she sets out to prove him wrong.
Recognition came to her face as I explained my presence and she started nodding.
“Oh THAT’S right! I’m sorry I just totally blanked about why you were here because you didn’t come through our regular volunteer pipeline. I do apologize.”
“It’s okay,” I said.
“We’re so glad to have your help though. Thanks for coming down. I’ll take you over and introduce you to Ralph and he’ll get you settled.”
Ralph is a diminuitive man orginially from the Phillipines, a former youth pastor who was now dividing his time between overseeing operations at City Impact and setting up events at the Moscone Center, San Francisco’s convention center. He took my hand and gave it a firm shake, smiling warmly when Angelique introduced us.
“Great! Thanks so much for being here. Come on in and I’ll show you what we’re doing.”
As Angelique said goodbye and turned to go back to the office, I followed Ralph inside the meal hall. It’s a basic cafeteria-style room–tile floor, white walls, folding tables and chairs set up the length of the room, about enough to accomodate a maximum of 50 people. All the chairs were arranged to face the small stage at the far end of the room, where a simple podium stood in front of a cross mounted on a backdrop of shiplap.
The air inside the hall was warm, close and musty. I wasn’t sure if the smell came from the bedraggled people already lingering in the room or the crates and boxes of donated produce that were stacked up just inside the door–perhaps it was both.
Several eyes followed me as I followed Ralph, who was walking quickly and greeting people just as quickly. He took me back to the small kitchen behind the main part of the hall.
“So I’m a little disorganized today.” he chuckled amicably. “Cora who usually runs our meal service isn’t here, and I don’t really know what I’m doing. But we’re gonna figure it out.”
He introduced me to an older Asian man named Moto who didn’t speak any English, but who was so accustomed to the flow of the meal services that he didn’t really need to talk or understand what you were saying. The entire time I was there he rotated from one task to another, filling plates, washing pans, and wiping tables. I quickly learned that he was one of those invaluable, behind-the-scenes people who is often unnoticed, but without whom the entire process would crumble.
Ralph continued to describe his plan for the meal.
“Since it’s raining today I asked them to make some soup in the kitchen. That’s a treat, we don’t normally have soup. We’ll walk over there now and see what else they have.”
I wondered if I looked as awkward as I felt: my small purse clutched tightly against my side, my Columbia rain slicker zipped up to my throat and my wedding ring turned to the inside of my hand so that my diamond wouldn’t be obvious to people who may see me as a mark. I mentally kicked myself for not leaving my ring back at the AirBnB.
“Is there a place I should put my stuff?” I asked Ralph, hoping for a locker of some kind, or a drawer in the internal office that I could see through the window.
“Uh, yeah, you can just stash it in here.” He gestured to a stainless steel cupboard full of dishes and pots and pans and aluminum tins. “Alright, let’s go visit the kitchen. I’m supposed to have more people helping serve here today but I think a lot of them are running behind with the rain…hopefully it won’t just be us!” The smile had never left his face, but he chuckled nervously.
I only considered putting my purse in the cupboard for a moment, but quickly decided against it, afraid that one of the rough-looking men staring into space in the cafeteria would wander into the room and discover it and take my phone and credit cards.
On the way out, an African-American man named Rudy (who unfortunately bore a resemblance to Bill Cosby) stopped to talk to Ralph, and when Ralph introduced me and said that I was there to volunteer, Rudy’s eyes went wide and his arm swung open in the direction of the office.
“Well, I’ve glot plenty for her to do! Follow me young lady. I’ll put…”
“Um,” I chuckled nervously. “I’m actually here to help Ralph with the meal.”
“Yeah, sorry Rudy,” Ralph said. “She signed up to do the service.”
“Oh! I’m sorry! I didn’t realize that. I shouldn’t have assumed.” Rudy apologized.
Ralph waved him off. “It’s okay. We’ve gotta get over to the kitchen.”
As Ralph and I went outside and walked around the corner to the kitchen, he asked me where I was from and how I’d found out about City Impact. In turn, I asked him a couple of questions just to find out a little more about him, but I was distracted by the people on the street–either shuffling along and staring at the ground as though every step was a movement of great effort, or aggressively striding down the sidewalk with a pace that indicated you should not try to stop them or speak to them. Expletives were flying through the air, horns were blaring incessantly, steam was hissing up from the ground, the occasional used needle littered the sidewalk, but Ralph continued smiling and chatting with the ease of someone who had become accustomed to the noise and subliminal intensity that set all my nerve endings on edge.
The kitchen was full of hot food, with not a soul in sight. It was almost as if it had been prepared by ghosts. There were at least six huge pans of penne pasta; two vats of an indistinguishable brothy soup (which we later mixed with the pasta); ovens containing four whole baked chickens; two pans of corn-dogs; two enormous plastic bins of salad; one filled to the brim with sliced oranges and another with slices of baguettes; and three metal pans containing what we assumed was meatloaf, which we ended up smothering with barbecue sauce.
As if on cue, a couple of teenage boys showed up and loaded all the food onto a cart with Ralph’s help and wheeled it back over to the room we’d just left, which I now realized wasn’t really a kitchen after all, but more of the assembly station. Ralph quickly filled a styrofoam container, showing us how he’d like the food to be presented and then left me and Moto alone to get started. About five minutes later, a young Latino man walked in, donned an apron, snapped on a pair of latex gloves and, smiling, introduced himself to me as Albert.
I’m ashamed to admit that my first glance at Albert produced a combination of fear and judgment. He was dressed in all black, his pants hanging low on his hips, and he walked with a cocky swagger that didn’t fit his childlike, crinkly-eyed smile. His hair was closely shaved and the sleeves of his baggy black hoodie were pushed up to reveal tattoos that covered his muscular forearms. I just knew, that in my regular life in my upper middle-class, mostly white neighborhood, if I was ever alone on a street at night and saw Albert approaching me, I’d assume he was trouble and would cross the street to get away from him or look for storefront to duck into until he’d passed.
As these shameful thoughts came to my mind, I intentionally pushed them aside and started asking Albert questions about how he became involved with City Impact, because the fact that he was beside me, already scooping out the mystery meatloaf onto the plates I was passing him and neatly arranging them on a cart without a word of instruction or a glimpse of hesitation, spoke volumes to me about the heart under the intimidating exterior.
“I drive the truck, pick up donations. And this part of the job is just a kick-back,” he said, still grinning and looking directly into my eyes. I found myself grinning back–it was impossible not to.
“A kick back? What do you mean?”
“I get to see these people smile, just because they’re getting a warm meal. It makes my day.” It would’ve sounded cliche, fake, except that it came from someone who looked, on the outside, like they wouldn’t care about such simple, yet essential things. I liked him so much in that moment–he reminded me of my brother, and I would’ve hugged him if I had known him for longer than five minutes, and if I’d known that he’d have let me.
Soon the room was full of helpers: the same lanky teenage boys who had brought the food over from the kitchen, me, Moto and Albert, and then an Asian woman in her 40s named Jane, who seemed to take on a leadership role once she arrived. The two teenagers cut up and joked with Albert while our assembly line passed Styrofoam trays, but their joking around never led to idleness. They were funny and happy and never once seemed to begrudge their time being spent in a soup kitchen. At one point, I heard one of them tease Albert about prison, and he calmly but firmly said:
“Man I’m never going back there.”
It was then I wondered whether this young man had to have had an experience with God, whether through Ralph, someone else at City Impact, or maybe no one connected there at all, that had changed the course of his life. And he was here out of gratitude.
Someone turned on some praise music, and as the cart filled up with trays and the talking ceased, I focused on the words to a popular song, “Build My Life”by Housefires:
“Holy, there is no one like you, there is none beside you, open up my eyes in wonder. Show me who you are and fill me with your heart and lead me in your love to those around me.”
This chorus was one I had just heard for the first time when attending worship with my parents the Sunday before flying to San Francisco. It was meaningful while standing and singing it, but it was so much more powerful as it rang in my ears in this tiny makeshift kitchen in the slums of San Francisco, working side by side with people I would normally never encounter–people outside my age group, outside my socioeconomic category, outside my preference. We were there not to be seen, not to be noticed, praised, graded, or critiqued. We were there because we’d been led by the Father, in love, to serve those around us, regardless of the legitimacy or caliber of their stories. And it also explained to me how things just seemed to happen in this place without discussion and even when my first impression was that things were completely disorganized: God was so active here, His love so palpable, that people joined in where they were needed without complaint or rush, because they just wanted to be His hands and feet.
Ralph spoke to the crowd of wet men and women, about 30 of them, and he brought them a message of hope, of challenge. His diminutive frame seemed to grow larger as he filled the musty air with fragrant truth. He reminded them that Jesus is able to change their hearts, their desires, to reflect His own heart and then use them for His glorious purposes. His angle surprised me, because on an average day I would’ve looked at these people as beyond hope, as expendable, as weak.
Their faces lit up as we brought them food.
“Thank you.” “Please.” “Where are you from?” “I used to live in North Carolina–Winston-Salem, do you know it?” “What brought you to San Francisco?”
My own eyes were opened in wonder in those two hours in the Tenderloins. I marveled, and inwardly praised God, for these reminders and the urging to come to City Impact, so that I could see again how wrong I was and how easily my assumptions block the pipeline for Christ’s life-changing love. For these people, so easily ignored and looked down upon by the rest of the world because they outwardly wear their struggles, simply reflect what so many of us are like on the inside: broken, tired, slogging through life, hostile, dirty, hungry. And City Impact was a place where all of these similarities were laid bare.
The meal wrapped up and the people left quickly, arms full of to-go boxes, heads nodding in thanks. A couple of them stopped to say a word to Ralph or Rudy, but most just walked out the door without looking back. I guess there wasn’t much to say when this place was so familiar to them, such a regular stop in their days.
I helped wipe some tables and then stood up and looked around the room, understanding that my job was finished. I went back to the mini-kitchen and tossed my rag in the sink and grabbed my belongings out of the cupboard, which, halfway through the meal I’d decided was actually the best place for my purse and jacket after I’d tried to dish out pasta with my purse constantly swinging forward into my arm. I went back through the cafeteria toward the door and was grabbed by Rudy, who apologized profusely for assuming I was there to help him. I assured him it was fine, that I wasn’t offended.
“Thank you Jesus!” He breathed, wiping his brow dramatically. He then sat down on the edge of the stage and started to give me his testimony, telling me how he became a part of City Impact, and about the biggest roadblocks and problems the mission was experiencing. Something he kept saying over and over again was,
“It’s bad out here. People are hurting!”
He asked me to pray for him. I felt so unworthy to pray for a person, for people, for a movement that was investing in the details of the most difficult environment in San Francisco. Knowing that they would be back there tomorrow pouring themselves out, and that I would never look back and would eventually get on my airplane and go back to my comfortable furniture; my needle-free, swept sidewalk; my suburban life with an expanse of green grass, put a lump in my throat and I had to fight the shame, the thought that Rudy didn’t really need my prayer.
But I prayed anyway. It was uncomfortable at first, but as he squeezed my hand and agreed with me in prayer, “Mmm-hmm. Yes Lord, yes Jesus,” my wall crumbled yet again and tears started to well up in my closed eyes, because I felt as though I was praying for a brother. I knew that I’d made a friend, one only God could’ve brought into my life.
Rudy said thank you after I said Amen. He gave me a quick hug and then jumped off the stage and disappeared. I shouted goodbye to the rest of the volunteer team, who responded with smiles, waves and a few thank-yous, and then pulled Ralph outside for a photo under the City Impact sign. His smile was still there, even in his eyes, as I walked away and called probably my 20th Uber in San Francisco.
A week or so later I was showing my six-year-old daughter how to pot some pansies for the pedestal on our front porch. She was eager to help, but she wanted to just pull the pansy out of the plastic container and stick it straight into the pot. I explained to her that we first had to break the soil that had retained the stiff, rectangular shape of its confined space in the plastic. She watched as I gently squeezed the soil and freed the delicate roots, turning the rectangle into a mess and then placed the pansy into the waiting bed of soil in the bottom of the large clay pot.
“See honey, this pansy can’t grow anymore if it just stays in the same space. It needs to have more room to grow, but first we have to break up the soil and expose the roots so that they can grow deeper and stronger, so that the flowers will grow higher and produce more buds.”
I’d like to thank San Francisco City Impact, for being the space that I needed to see, to experience in order that God might break down my comfort and shallow soil, expose the frailty of my roots and give me the nourishment and inspiration that I needed to blossom and grow deeply into His love.