By Pat Cetera, OFS
With November comes the beginning of the cold cutting winds and falling temperatures that cause us to put on the winter coats. The orange and red leaves that adorned picture perfect landscapes have been swept up, leaving naked branches on the trees.Soon a sparkling white blanket of snow will cover the ground. Days grow shorter, night grows longer, and sometimes the darkness seems endless. But, then comes the joyful anticipation of holiday gatherings and celebrations with family and friends. Thanksgiving Day arrives, and we devour the mounds of special once a year recipes lovingly prepared heaped on our plates. We share our homes and our lives. And, we do it all with gratitude.
As I remember holidays long past, when my children were young, I taught them that no person should ever be alone on a holiday. It was a rare holiday to sit at the dinner table with only our family present. My door was always unlocked, and my home open to neighbors and friends who wandered in throughout the day to share stories, time, and often a meal with us. Several years ago, with children grown and families of their own, I found myself alone much of the holiday. I sat all day, sometimes in tears, waiting for two of my children to call me, but the phone never rang. I began eagerly checking the mail the entire week before, but no mail arrived. I sat and patiently waited each holiday for the doorbell to ring, but they never came.
A few years ago, I decided to do something different on Thanksgiving Day that I wanted to do since I was a young woman. With great determination, I began calling every local church, city and village in the surrounding area to find a place to volunteer to serve in a soup kitchen. Each call resulted in being advised that “no special meal had been planned:, or “they already had enough volunteers”. In desperation, I called the county. My call was returned with the information I hoped to hear. There was a police department chaplain, who having recognized the many homeless and unemployed in his area, was trying to organize a Thanksgiving dinner. He asked a friend, a restaurant owner, to provide the place for the meal. The owner agreed, and found a few employees who volunteered to operate the kitchen. The chaplain appealed to several local churches of different denominations,for food donations and servers. Food that was donated was cooked at the church kitchens, or in homes and brought to the restaurant on ice, or warm. Stores, bakeries, and good home cooks provided bread, pies, cookies and side dishes. Personal invitations were sent out to those who were known to be homeless or unemployed by the city and churches. There was a notice in the newspaper as well as a sign on the restaurant making all welcome. Nobody knew exactly the number invited, the amount of food to be donated, or the number of servers.
I phoned the chaplain, volunteered, and was given an arrival time. Waking early on Thanksgiving Day, I drove many miles and arrived at the restaurant eager to work. Within a half hour, our small group of 5 became too numerous to count. Before opening the doors to our guests, the servers stood literally shoulder to shoulder, holding hands, encircling the entire perimeter of the restaurant as we prayed together in gratitude. The doors opened, and the serving began. The people kept arriving and the food seemed to multiply throughout the day. there was more food than could be consumed. Late afternoon, the restaurant owner began calling shelters and nursing homes to donate the left over food.
Because many languages were spoken, it was difficult to communicate well with a number of our guests. Several times during the day, families formed a line behind the steam tables and waited for a break in the serving line to approach us. As mom and dad embraced our shoulders, tiny children hugged our legs – some wiping tears away. Some spoke in their own language – but, somehow, we understood every word. Some just stood there with smiles like I had never seen before, and simply reached to hold our hands in theirs.
When I arrived home that night, I checked the answering machine for that much awaited message from my children. There was no message – but, for the first time, it was okay.I realized with a heart filled with joy, that I had become a member of a new family that day. I knew that I, too, was as poor and needy as the guests who had allowed me to serve them. I recognized that at some point each one of us is poor in some way, in need of one another, and hunger for the same thing. And all journeying on the same road, sharing the same needs and wants, somehow makes us related and we become a family so huge, it covers the entire universe!
And so, with deep gratitude I recognized that it was God who led me to that particular time and to that particular restaurant, to open my eyes and heart, and make me understand that I was never alone.
My best wishes to you and your families for a very happy and blessing-filled Thanksgiving.
Please feel free to share your experiences of service. When have you felt God’s presence in your life ?