For an introvert, it turns out I’m really bad at a full pandemic lockdown. I know people who haven’t left their houses or seen anyone outside their immediate family for almost half a year. Me? It only took about a month before I couldn’t do it anymore.
Washington state shut down in mid-March. By mid-April, the walls of my small (and feeling smaller) apartment were closing in. Eric was still going to work every day (albeit to an empty building), but my days and nights all started to blend together. The daily walks helped, but I needed some kind of structure or purpose.
So when I found out that our neighborhood Hot Meals program needed volunteers, I jumped on it.
Phinney Neighborhood Association’s Hot Meals program “nourishes our community with free hot meals in a welcoming setting three times a week,” according to their website. Seattle, with our growing population of people experiencing homelessness or living right on the edge of it, has a lot of people who rely on programs like this. And even in a pandemic, people need to eat.
So that’s how I became a volunteer waitress and food server. Every Monday for the past four months, I have donned my mask and gloves to stand (outside) behind a table welcome my neighbors. At first, we were limited to offering take-away meals. With the understandable rules of quarantine and social distancing, we packed bags full of healthy, savory, homemade meals, snacks, fruit and vegetables, and whatever snacks had been donated that week, and sent diners on their way. As I poured coffee into paper cups, I asked guests about their day, and I heard stories I’ll never forget. For a lot of people, the novel coronavirus is the least of their concerns.
I started to recognize the regulars and learned who is vegetarian, who wants the leftover peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to give their grandkids, who takes extra cream and sugar, and who wants their coffee black. Every week, I try to remember one more name.
As the pandemic plateaued in my area and the restrictions lifted a little, we could set up picnic tables outside so that our guests could sit and enjoy their meal in relative comfort. (God bless Washington state, where summers are sunny and mild, bugs are rare, and eating outside is a gift.)
And that’s when I really started to notice something. The people who came for Monday night dinner didn’t just eat and run. They lingered. They visited. Our regulars know each other and support each other. I started to get how this program provides “far more than a fresh-cooked meal.” We provide space for a community to develop. A place where no one will be hurried along or pushed aside or overlooked.
So why am I telling you this on a blog dedicated to the Camino de Santiago?
Because it’s the Camino that taught me how important a shared meal can be.
When you ask any pilgrim about their journey on The Way, it doesn’t take long before they tell you about the communal dinner tables, where groups of tired, dusty travelers gather to share bread and stories. Or the plastic tables where we could drop our heavy loads and share a few minutes of peace and café con leches. Hearing the stories of others, tracking our “Camino families” as we journey together, and sometimes just offering a shared “wow, this is hard” look…those are the things that keep us going on the days when it all seems to be falling apart.
And now here I am, isolated in some ways. I’ve been grieving the loss of a long walking trip, only to discover that I’m actually serving as a hospitalera in my own backyard. The pilgrims’ journey is harder here, in so many ways, and the coffee isn’t nearly as good. But the purpose of our weekly communal meals is the same—to offer a little bit of peace, and sustenance, and encouragement for the road ahead.
When we are generous in welcoming people and sharing something with them–some food, a place in our homes, our time–not only do we no longer remain poor: we are enriched.