Thursday, September 8, 2011

Service Day

Part of the orientation schedule here at Union, inserted between two days  of the kind of orientation stuff you might find at any institution of higher education, is Service Day.  Incoming students (and some returning students and faculty) head off for an afternoon of work at one of six social service groups in the Richmond area.  Given my choice I signed up for an afternoon at the Central Virginia Food Bank.

This Food Bank (under the umbrella of a group called FeedMore) serves as a clearinghouse where food is collected, preprared, and packaged for distribution by other groups, from Meals on Wheels to Children's Cafe to any number of others.  A busy day might involve three thousand or more food packages moving through.  Our group may well have put together several hundred meals today; in the middle of working you really can't tell.

There were occasional moments of threatened comedy.  My first station involved packing and loading fruit cups for distribution.  These had already been filled, but needed to be covered.  The Food Bank has been able to acquire machines to stick those plastic filmy covers on things like fruit cups and meal trays, and I (along with Brian Blount, the president of Union Presbyterian Seminary) was on the receiving end, loading fruit cups onto trays to be taken to another station for packing.  The trick is that once the machine gets going, it's not easy to stop.  Even if switched off it takes several more seconds to stop, in which fruit cups keep popping out.  More than once, in the first few runs, we were almost overwhelmed by fruit cups.  If I say it was nearly a "Lucy and Ethel moment" and refer you to this YouTube video, I think you'll get the point.

Later came the greasy work of slicing up meatloaf for loading onto meals, along with mashed potatoes and spinach.  I got the grunt work of pulling out the trays of meatloaf from the cooler, dividing them up into pieces around 3.5 ounces each (or as close as I could get, since some of these meatloaf trays came out looking like continents in some post-Pangea stage of continental drift), and putting those meatloaf servings into trays.  Others down the line added gravy, mashed potatoes, and spinach, then the trays were covered by another machine and labeled for distribution.  The supervisor called it "the worst job," though I'm not sure why.  Later tasks included shrink-wrapping large racks of meals and other items for loading on trucks for delivery to other agencies.

This was the point at which the enormity of the Food Bank's task became clearer.  Even if many other meals had been delivered already that day, there was still an awful lot of stuff left to go.  Furthermore, looking at the labels on the various items awaiting delivery reminded me of some of the complications that accrue to the task of providing so many meals.  People have food allergies or intolerances.  Some are vegetarians -- no meatloaf there.  Others have dietary restrictions due to other health issues.  The Food Bank has to work around all of these, and be sure the wrong meals don't get sent off to the wrong agencies.  It can be a pretty mind-boggling task, but they handle it, and handle it well from what I could see today.

It was a good solid three-hour volunteer shift, and seemed to be well-appreciated by the staff and other volunteers.  I certainly left feeling it had been a worthwhile day of service work by all means, and considering the Food Bank as a place to continue to volunteer on my own.

Still, the clincher of the day was yet to come.  After another meal back on campus (fried chicken...mmmmm), the day's wrap was a worship service led by Motor Racing Outreach, a ministry connected to NASCAR, which of course has a race in Richmond this weekend.  We did get our brush with celebrity: Trevor Bayne, this year's Daytona 500 winner, was one of the speakers.  It was "worship" in the contemporary mode; many of you who know me will guess my overall reaction.  I won't burden you with my reactions otherwise (I don't feel like starting fights these days), except to acknowledge that I didn't know any of the music.

But part of the order was to hear some words from students who had gone out to the various agencies and volunteered to reflect on their experience.  All three of these were well-said and good to hear.

Then one more person spoke, more impromptu.  Syngman Rhee (not to be confused with the one-time Korean president) is kind of a big deal in PC(USA) and mainline Protestantism more generally.  He's been a moderator of PC(USA) and worked with the denomination in many ways.  He now teaches here at Union, and was also part of the contingent at the Food Bank today.  His words eloquently recalled his own experience on the receiving end of such food distribution, as a refugee fleeing North Korea in the early 1950s.  Church World Service, then an arm of the National Council of Churches, was on hand quickly to minister to those refugees with food, blankets (Korean winters aren't pleasant, apparently), and more.

One could volunteer at a place like the Central Virginia Food Bank and not end up seeing the beneficiaries of one's work face-to-face.  That doesn't make the work any less important, of course; clearly there is a significant need in the Richmond area for the service the CVFB provides.  Still, being reminded of just what might happen on the receiving end of such work provided a fittingly thoughtful and even celebratory end to the day.  A lot of people volunteer in so many places.  Some of them are found "on the front lines," directly working with those in need.  Many are found "behind the lines," providing unseen support and making the work "on the front lines" possible.  May God continue to bless the hands, feet, arms, backs and work of those behind the lines, hairnets, plastic aprons and all; rubber gloves greasy with meatloaf or speckled with mashed potatoes, juggling fruit cups, and making it possible for people to be fed who might not otherwise eat tonight.

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