New York City isn’t the place to live with expectations. Even the most logical, grounded, stable people find expecting anything at all is unrealistic. In a place this diverse, grossly populated (some would argue over-populated), and unique the only thing you can expect is to be surprised…or outright blindsided. Everything you witness in public is random, usually ridiculous or outrageous, and would result in far more dramatic reactions and consequences literally anywhere else. It doesn’t take long to learn that rabbit-sized rats, hot-boxed elevators, drunken and/or violent scenes, public transit performances, and apparently pedestrian accidents are to be ignored. And/or expected. I’m pretty sure any one of my blog entries can back this up, but Sunday’s experience in particular screams “unrealistic expectations,” and proved quite the learning experience.
I told my friend Peacola recently that I was overdue to volunteer somewhere. I’d become increasingly aware that everything I do, I do for myself. I strongly believe any day I conclude without having impacted anyone else in a positive way is a selfish waste of the time and potential I’m fortunate enough to have. But no one’s perfect, and I’m very far from it. Peacola said she, too, had been wanting to do some good, so we agreed to start by responding to the next opportunity in our church bulletin. That seemed like a simple, foolproof solution. So that Sunday we saw a need for volunteers to help conduct a church service and serve breakfast at the Bowery mission, a nearby shelter. We called the follow-up number, committed to the next two weeks, and glanced at the Mission’s website to gain a feel for the place. Typical shelter service opp, I thought. Pray, sing, worship, scoop food onto plates, hopefully meet some people with great stories… Piece of cake.
The initial challenge of waking up at 6:30 am was quickly overcome. Anytime I’m on schedule, I’m pumped. I have this flawed vision that people who are on time are always smooth sailing as they avoid the panic and excuse manifestation I spend half of my time on. I yearn for this delusion. Peacola and I were completely patting ourselves on the back for the early rising and trip preparation via HopStop, and after forcibly bearing the hype of the Puerto Rican Parade on the subway, arrived with a few minutes to spare at what we thought was quite a charming building. Unfortunately, it took all of 30 seconds to conclude the guy we called had not arrived yet, and we were without direction.
Every man in the building froze at the sight of us and none instigated an introduction. We haphazardly explained what we thought we were there for, and someone said we could go on into the chapel if we just sat on the front row. There was nothing appealing about stepping further into an unfamiliar building, past pews of homeless men, without anyone acknowledging why we were there, so we waited uneasily. But when our guy, Rex, arrived this tension disappeared entirely. Rex barged into that lobby with an energy like he owned the whole block, and we realized we actually do know him. Anyone who’s ever stepped foot in Trinity knows Rex. He makes his voice heard and his presence known, and this is the only case in which I say this as a good thing. I love Rex.
It’s no news to anyone reading my blog that I’m a blunt cynic. I am distracted and annoyed by those who overwhelm, but Rex is that one guy who needs to speak up. When our preacher opened the floor to anyone who wanted to pray over Haiti Rex delivered the most eloquent, moving, genuine prayer I’d ever heard. And I’m positive he was talking to God and not to me. We didn’t want to cut him slack for being late though, and we were hoping for an explanation about where all the women and children pictured on the website were hiding. Rex appeared so oblivious to the awkwardness of our presence that we started to worry this was his first time preaching here. But our anxiety was eased by an awesome preparatory prayer and we were escorted to our unsolicited seats.
Rex’s music pastor led some amazing worship alongside a guy playing the bongos, which concluded with an audience poll asking who was excited about Father’s Day. Of about 80 people, five of us raised our hands. And I just felt obligated, I’m not excited per say…I’m not a father. But the pastor’s point was that the other 75 people should know regardless of whether they have an earthly father to be excited about, they have a heavenly father who’s always been present in their lives.
Rex followed this thought up with a message about his three experiences with earthly fathers all involving abandonment and rejection. We learned that Rex has actually preached at the Mission for 30 years and has quite a testimony. I couldn’t help but reflect on my own earthly father throughout his message. Just the day before my dad had paid for a plane ticket for me to see my family for the 4th of July, and I was bouncing around my restaurant telling everyone what a great guy he was for it. When a friend asked about the last time my whole family was together, I described our attempt at a group photo over Thanksgiving break. At the end of this story regarding a bit of tension, he asked where my Dad was this whole time. I knew exactly where he was: quietly cooperating trying to make everyone happy at once.
Don’t get me wrong, my dad knows how to antagonize. He faked a broken down car to trick my brothers into pushing it up a hill once, to say the least. But the pastor said it’s hard to relate a father of protection and strength and patience and love to earthly fathers who sometimes don’t fall into any of these categories. I have always known I have amazing, unbeatable parents, but it’s important to recognize my father is a lot more than the person who bought my TV and last three flights. My father is the reason I’ve never had trouble associating my heavenly father with protection and love and strength and patience. After the family picture story my friend said I sound like a big fan of my dad. Yeah, plane ticket or not, I am a pretty big fan of the guy.
This reflection had me in a great mood for serving food, when I was abruptly reminded how seriously men take portion size regardless of their housing status. Peacola was not expecting to be yelled at over the crispiness of the bacon she served, but the complaints were uncomfortably familiar to me. We had the kitchen staff telling us how short they were on food on one side, and the homeless men telling us how unacceptable the portions were on the other.
We left with two repeating reactions: “It was interesting to say the least,” and “What did we expect?” We laughed the entire walk from the Mission to the Subway, and then some just from bottling up a few hours worth of shock. Rex invited us to the men’s only service at a place that holds 91 services each week. I had a homeless man yell how bad he felt for my future husband when he was dissatisfied with my sweeping techniques. We simply couldn’t have predicted that kind of morning, but we did a little good. And as always, I think I benefited the most from it. I learn something new everyday here, and took a step towards making this an even better place. Just another adventure in the Big Apple.