July 23 at 3:06pm

Interfaith Distributes Bag Lunches of Dignity


The following is a letter submitted to Interfaith Community Services by volunteer and Interfaith client, Michael Williams.  


We do many things at Interfaith, however, the most important thing we do is “Empower People!” This may be surprising considering we feed, shelter and clothe thousands.

Empowerment occurs in indistinguishable minuscule steps like any other human growth, it is the process of life. Without developmental empowerment humanity does not progress, and progress has and will always be the undeniable goal of generations.

Within the mission statement of Interfaith it states “we serve low income, the homeless, the underserved and veterans. We supply food, basic needs, family and social services, employment, children and youth services.” You may not suspect the four or five thousand bag lunches we distribute monthly serve each of these purposes, however it does.

I am an honorably discharged homeless veteran. I hand out bag lunches to the homeless daily as my contribution to Interfaith. When I was first given this task I would give one lunch to each person as they were leaving the morning breakfast which is served between 6:30 am through 7:30am. During this time showers are also provided along with laundry services.

With time I got to know the people and as with all relationships, with knowledge comes understanding, which leads to tolerance, which leads to compassion. It was this sense of being able to feel the pain of the people I was asked to serve which led to my own internal development of empathy.

As I got to know the people, relationships developed; and as they did I got to learn the needs of the individuals. They were no longer the homeless. They were Hector, Denise, Susan, Gwendolyn, Jose, Maria and Sam, who had distinct needs. It became more challenging to simply hand out a bag lunch to each individual as they came by regardless of their requests, expressed needs, or situation.

I came to realize my behavior could be more responsive to the demands of their needs as opposed to my assumption that their requests as a result of their needs would be respectful to our traditions of how it had been. Sometimes those traditions were not as responsive to the needs I saw before me as I came to desire, they did not empower those who were in need. I came to experience the needs of the people I served as I was able to allow myself to experience some of their pain and vulnerability. Herein, I attempt to share some of those experiences with you.

What impressed me most at the beginning to this experience was that ninety percent of the people who came thru the nutrition center got their one lunch and left. To a great degree this story is about the other ten percent.

Occasionally, someone would ask for two lunches and I always said no. Then one woman who asked said to me, “I have a job for ten hours today and I will be paid fifty dollars cash at the end of the day, can you give me two bags, one for lunch and dinner”. I did. The next day when I saw her I suspected she was going to ask for two lunches again; she did not. She gazed into my eyes and said unto me, “Only one lunch please, I have all I need today.” Within that moment I realized she was at peace. She had the one thing some of us spend a life time in search of; peace. I was envious. Occasionally, she still asks for two lunches and on those days I know she has work. She has been an example for me of how to walk through vulnerability and to be at peace and comfort within.

The second person who impressed me was a man who each day would ask for three lunches. He explained he had children at home and the lunches were for them and one was allergic to peanuts

{many of our lunches are peanut butter and jelly}. I responded with suspicion as opposed to tolerance. Then a few days later I saw him eating breakfast with what I consider to be the cutest kids on the planet, his nine year old daughter and ten year old son. My suspicions had been erroneous. Now when I see him I ask how the kids are, and do they need food whenever the children are not around and I try to search for any sandwich other than peanut butter for his daughter and I give him a bag for the children. I realize, like most nine and ten year olds they want to sleep in during the summer vacation. Hopefully, the lunches provides some resemblance of a normal childhood for his children.

Then there are the working homeless. There are many people who work for minimum wage or less where all their resources goes to maintain housing and there is nothing left for food. I have come to learn, these are the people most likely to askfor two lunches. They use one for lunch and the other for dinner. I can certainly sympathize with the challenge of working all day and being unable to afford dinner.

There is one couple, let’s call them {Bill & Maria for anonymity purposes} who sleep in the local park. They sit together each day. One day he came in without her and asked for two lunches. By now I had started to learn, so I gave him two. The next day, I ask, “Where is Maria?” as he replied, she still sleeping in park she has a cold.

Sometimes there are people with certain food allergies so the lunches may be inappropriate for them that day so on those days they go hungry. Then there are those without teeth. On days when we have apples, or pears or anything that requires teeth, they go hungry.

Most of the homeless who ask for two or three lunches at the time have very good reasons for doing so and I find it amazing that in a homeless population so few do ask. I do not know if I have that kind of faith in my creator, from the homeless I have learned lessons of faith and peace.

Don’t misunderstand my intentions here. It is not to paint a picture of piety within this population for within are those that are within any and all populations however I think it more challenging to remain faithful when one is without shelter, clothes and food.

Within this task of handing out bag lunches each day I have learned in addition to food we give something just as important. We give some resemblance of dignity and all creation deserves dignity. It is an inherent right of all creatures to be valued and respected.

In order to provide respect and tolerance for the homeless we have to respond with an inherent ability to allow them to make decisions with respect to their own needs; otherwise we inadvertently say to them I know better than you what you need which allows no dignity, no respect and no room for human development. I have learned that when we distribute bag lunches often we are in effect, distributing bags of dignity and freedom.

When a father can go back to the hotel with a couple of bags of food for his children he has some resemblance of dignity and it allows some resemblance of the freedom of childhood for his children. When a man can go back to the park with a bag of food for his beloved girlfriend who is sleeping on the ground trying to recover from a cold within that bag is a small resemblance of dignity. When a woman who is working all day for less than minimum wage and we give her two bags of food that allows her the ability to work then within is dignity. When someone who has no teeth searches for applesauce and we give it to them, they have dignity.

What I learned from the homeless is that in order to have dignity humans have to have some degree of choice. Often, someone would approach me prior to leaving the building and ask for a lunch. I noted the careful evaluation of each item within the bag and then the placement of each item in a different part of the back pack she was carrying. I realized, this process of planning on her part of a valuable aspect of not only her humanity but also her ability to plan and make critical choices as to how she was going to use the resources she had for the day. I also learned that for those who have no choices concerning housing, food and shelter it is of the upmost importance to promote what few choices they do have. Choice is a necessity of dignity and respect; more importantly without choice there is no opportunity for self-esteem.

One of the happiest days I have observed is a day when the lunches were packed with the bags left open and on top of each bag was either, barbecue or plain potato chips, cheese chips or nachos. Each person who approached me would point to which one they wanted and smile. We had provided choices to a population that has few choices within life.

Certainly there are some who take advantage of the system however it has been my experience that with time I am generally able to discern most of those. For the others then so be it for it is a small price to pay for the overwhelming sense of dignity, freedom and self-esteem we distribute each day.

Each day the remaining lunches from breakfast are distributed to the homeless as they may appear throughout the day.

There are many more stories I could tell within however hopefully by now you get a small feel not only for the importance of the food we distribute but just as important for the dignity, freedom and sense of self-esteem we distribute that allows one of our creators most vulnerable populations to maintain a sense of their humanity. In doing so, Interfaith promotes dignity, freedom and humanity and these are items we rarely think about in our day to day process however they are just as important because in essence we are all spirits on an indescribable journey. To the degree that we promote the process of the journey both within ourselves and within others we grow and expand our own journey. Herein may be one of life’s most challenging paradoxes because all the while I was thinking that I was giving to the homeless when in reality the homeless were nurturing my opportunity for spiritual growth.

Please consider bestowing your gift of dignity upon our creators most vulnerable. Please donate to Interfaith and rejoice in the expansion of your own journey?

Michael Williams

An Honorably Discharged Veteran Who Distributes Bag Lunches