On my first day as a volunteer at the INN (Interfaith Nutrition Network), an amazing homeless shelter/soup kitchen on Long Island, I noticed this elderly woman with the energy of three 20-year-olds, chopping greens, cleaning the sink, laughing, giving everyone a hard time. She’d been there long before my start time (8:30am) and would be there long after I left (at 2:00pm). Her name is Margaret, and she’s 78 years old, with five children, eight grand children and five great grandchildren. I am the newest “Thursday regular,” and she is the oldest–having worked here for sixteen years.
The people we serve at the INN are known as guests. They are treated with respect and dignity. We are trained not to ever ask any questions, but to offer our services with wholehearted presence and authenticity. This experience of volunteering is one of the most profoundly satisfying I’ve ever undertaken. The group here is unflaggingly upbeat. For real. Plus, they’re here for all the right reasons.
One thing I really loved during my training was this: they told us, “If you’re coming in to take your mind off your troubles, stay home.” In other words, if you’re having a really bad day, and you think you can just throw yourself into this work to make yourself feel better, it’s best you stay home. Everyone here will pick up on your bad mood and it’s no good for anyone. Come here because you truly have something to give.
Now, my Thursdays at the INN make Thursdays my favorite day of the week. I can’t wait to get there and kick it with my new friends, buttering bread with Louise who tells me about her latest trip to India, or chopping lettuce with Margaret while she trades insults with Bob, or washing down trays in the awesome machine there that deserves a blogpost of its own it’s so cool. Sometimes I get to stand behind the counter when the guests come through to fill their trays. It’s such a pleasure to offer a smile, a real one, to everyone. Or to just genuinely wish them well. I’ve learned so much. I continue to learn.
Please give yourself this happiness. Try it. Go volunteer somewhere–for an hour, or a day, or once a week. It’s a Soup Kitchen for the Soul, if you will. A great way to bring a spaciousness into your own and maybe someone else’s life.
And the guests? Fundamentally, there is no difference between them and me. That’s important to remember. Like me, they want to be happy, they want choices, they want shelter and nourishment and love and for things to go their way. Like me, they do not want to suffer, to be hurt or disrespected or disappointed. And I wish for them and for myself that we all awaken to our true nature, which is an inexhaustible source of love, compassion and freedom.