Union Gospel Mission – Week 1

Where I went:
Through Hands On Greater Portland, I signed up to serve a meal at the Union Gospel Mission in downtown Portland. In addition to caring for the homeless, Union Gospel Mission(UGM) is home to the LifeChange addiction recovery ministry.  LifeChange participants have accepted Christ and can live at UGM while building stability for themselves.  In return, they are expected to work for the ministry.  Each night after the tenants’ finish their dinner, volunteer ministers organize a chapel service for those living on the street while the LifeChange residents prepare a hot meal for them at 8:00.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Hands On Greater Portland steps in to give the regular workers a night off.  
First Impressions:
Okay, perhaps I overreacted a smidge in my last post.  I forgot – I don’t live in L.A.  This is Portland, where the Union Gospel Mission is a mere 5 blocks down from the trendiest bars and restaurants in the Pearl District.  I’ve shopped and ate near this area a million times.  Why did I freak myself out so much just because I was going to be there by myself after dark?  
My scheduled work hours were from 7:00-9:00 p.m.  I left the house at 6:15 expecting to wait in traffic.  Only there was none.  Did Intel and Nike have the day off or something?  Where were the Beaverton/Hillsboro rush hour commuters?  I made it downtown in 15 minutes and there were 5 open curb spots across the street from my destination.  I reached for my jacket, but quickly changed my mind and tossed it back in the car.  The weather was warm.  And not raining.  In January.  In Portland.  Tell me that doesn’t prove there is a God.  
My awesome parking spot one block from the entrance
Following the instructions emailed to me from Hands On Greater Portland, I knocked on the double glass doors at the NW 3rd Street entrance.  Inside, several men lined up chairs in rows.  I hated showing up early, but one guy let me in and instructed me to wait for Brenda, the Hands On coordinator.  I walked to the back near the kitchen watching as the room transformed from dining area to chapel.  Up front, two older chaplains in Hawaiian shirts were strumming bluegrassish/gospelish worship songs on their guitars.  The same songs that are on my kids’ Veggie Tales CD, Oh Veggie, Where Art Thou.  Thank you, Veggie Tales, for the constant image of a singing tomato and cucumber when I hear “Praise the Lord, I Saw the Light.” 
If you volunteer, knock on these doors
A young couple walked through the door.  I was so relieved to see other volunteers that I immediately glommed on to them and started conversing.  I am super chatty when I’m nervous.  I’m pretty much chatty when I’m not nervous, too.  It turns out, the girl went to school with some students from my youth ministry days.  I felt an instant connection with her and her boyfriend.  (Actually, I’m not sure if he was her boyfriend, but later in the evening she delegated him to do dishes so I’m sure there is some level of intimacy there.)
The Job:
The doors exploded open and a jolly howl of laughter disrupted our whispers.  If Santa Claus were a blonde woman, he would be Brenda.  The Hands On coordinator introduced herself and led us back to the kitchen joking and chuckling on the way.  Immediately, she showed us a secure place to put our belongings and pointed out where the bathrooms were.  Phew – two of my worries taken care of in one sentence.  
Our first assignment was given.  We were guided on proper folding of napkins around sporks.  Brenda lectured for a moment on the purpose of a “spork”; the magical utensil that is curved like a spoon with forked prongs at the tip.  I have eaten mashed potatoes at Kentucky Fried Chicken, so I am spork aware.
While rolling sporks (that sounds illegal), I met my other co-volunteers for the evening.  In addition to myself, Boyfriend, and Girlfriend helping there was:
  • A Portland Public high school girl earning community service hours so she could run for Rose Court Princess, the royalty of Portland’s annual Rose Festival.
  • The grunge high school dude who drove up from Wilsonville reasoning, “I didn’t have anything better to do.”.
  • A guy about my age who looks just like an older Greg Brady.  I have no idea what his name is because all I could think the whole night was, “Wow.  That guy looks just like Greg Brady.”  
For most of us, this was the first time we volunteered at UGM.  Greg Brady had helped one time before.
Brenda turned our project into a competition – the napkins rolled the prettiest would be the ones handed out for the meal.  Princess and I were a folding team.  I hate to brag, but our sporks were used for dinner last night.  
We heard chapel underway in the next room while our coordinator gave serving instructions.  We would line up behind the buffet, each of us in front of a chafing dish.  Brenda explained that the volunteer at the front of the line should be someone with control issues; this person was in charge of line management.  I quietly slinked away toward the back.  Yes, I like to be in control, but my “fear of messing up” issues won that battle.  
Boyfriend stepped up to be “the controller,” handing out trays and keeping order.  Girlfriend and Princess followed, scooping out the macaroni and hash browns.  Greg Brady was in charge of vegetables.  He was ordered to push the carrots even if the diner declined because, Brenda informed, “they really do need the nutrients.”  Grunge Boy was next to me with dessert – Costco muffins, scones, and banana bread.  I could have shared with Brenda my opinion on lack of nutrients in the processed baked goods, but I kept my mouth shut.  
I was in charge of milk, sporks, and making sure no one stole the salt and pepper shakers.  For the milk selection, I asked each guest if they preferred whole, 2%, or chocolate.  Guess which I ran out of first?  Maybe I should have given my lecture on high-fructose corn syrup in the brown milk.  I’m sure they would have thought twice about their decisions.
Photo taken from UGM website
When people started heading back to the streets, Brenda explained our cleaning assignments.  The younger volunteers went to the dining area to stack chairs and wipe down the tables, while Greg Brady and I scrubbed and sanitized the counters and mopped the floors.  Amazingly, this dinner was prepped, served to 100, and cleaned up in exactly 2 hours.
The People:
Every time I serve with the homeless population, there are a few I would love to pull aside and ask, “What happened in your life that put you here?”  
Ninety percent of those in line last night wore dirty clothes, had missing teeth and grimy skin.  But a few times I’d hand milk to someone and do a double take.  One woman could have fit in as a member of my mom’s Bible study group.  One gentleman was there in a suit – there is no way I would peg him for one who needed a free meal.  There was a deaf man that I was able to briefly sign with.  He, more than anyone, is whom I wish I would have had time to have a conversation.  
Brenda warned us that sometimes, people can get belligerent.  Last week a man was calling all of the female volunteers “bitches.”  Another time, one of the transients would not take food from a certain volunteer.  He’d accept food from everyone else – just not that one helper.  
One woman fit right in with my expected stereotype.  In appearance, her gray hair stayed matted down by her ski cap except for the frizzy tuft of bangs poking out the front.  She had only one tooth and it was sticking straight forward.  In her backpack were all worldly goods stashed within reach.  The only person last night seemingly not grateful for a full belly, she complained about the quality of the food, asked why she couldn’t have more of it, and cursed because I wouldn’t give her two milks.  Maybe you get grumbling privileges if you are a repeat customer.  
I remain most impressed by the wonder woman that is Brenda, our jovial coordinator.  How can she constantly demonstrate such happiness, energy, and compassion when training a new group of volunteers every single Tuesday and Thursday?  My assumption was that she was employed by for Hands On Greater Portland.  
“No,” she replied when I asked, “I’m a volunteer just like you.  I’ve been doing this since Hands On started in 1996.”
Ummm no, Brenda, you’re not just like me.  The only thing I’ve committed to for that long is my marriage, and trust me, that’s not volunteering – it’s work.  The enormous size of Brenda’s heart makes mine look like the Grinch who stole Christmas – a heart 3 sizes too small.  
But already after 1 week, I can feel my heart expanding and my mind opening a little more.  What will my transformation be after 52 weeks of serving others?  I hope then I can write that my critical nature has been softened to be more like Brenda’s.  More like a nature of a servant.


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