I got to the church early. There was a huddled form underneath a dirty brown blanket on the porch. I tried the door. It was locked. I peered inside the window. The room was filled with tables decorated with holiday tablecloths, topped with plates , glasses of juice, and little bags of candies. Through the door came a smoky, salty scent of roast meat, which I later discovered was ham from Otto's Sausage Kitchen across the street. I was just dialing the volunteer coordinator on my cell phone when the other members of our group started to arrive.
We were greeted warmly by the woman who opened the door. I had spoken with her on the phone. A lovely older woman with Christmas bulb earrings and a brightly colored apron covered with butterflies.
We introduced ourselves and started to set up our instruments. One nice thing about being a pianist is not having to haul my instrument around to every gig. The piano at this church was a beat up old baby grand, slightly out of tune, but with all its keys intact. As we started to warm up, I glanced out the window. There were people lined up down the sidewalk.
When the volunteers had everything in place, they opened the door. The crowd shuffled in. One large gentleman with a scruffy beard and red cheeks came up and said, "Musicians, huh? Do you take requests?"
Before any of us could answer, he said "Little Drummer Boy! It's my favorite Christmas song!"
And so it began. I had worried about this event. I felt moved to volunteer our group to perform for "the homeless" over the holidays. But I had never done a gig like this. I didn't know if they would welcome us. I was worried about our group feeling uncomfortable or unsafe.
I had nothing to worry about. This was one of the best performances of my life. Ever. They loved us. They clapped enthusiastically between big bites of food. Many people came up to ask questions and share stories. There were many toothless grins, big hugs, but most of all God bless yous and thank yous.
I am going to remove the word "the" from "the homeless". These are people. All unique individuals who, for many different reasons, have no home. As my cello friend and I said later, we each were just a breath away from homelessness at times in our own lives.
We all had tears in our eyes as we left today with many genuine, loving encounters to take with us in our memories.
Later, at the church where I teach on Saturdays, a very dirty, weary looking young man appeared at the door asking if today was food bank day. I told him I would check.
I was told it was on Fridays. He should come back next week. I saw the look of despair in his eyes. I also saw a bag of apples leftover from yesterday. I asked the church member if I could give the man the apples. He said yes, they were leftover.
I gave him the apples. I apologized, telling him that was all. I explained I taught piano at the church, but did not work there. He thanked me.
As he turned to leave, he said sadly, "I thought today was Friday. I am so hungry".
My heart felt like it was going to burst. And how hypocritical of me was it to pat my own back and boast about how I played music for a homeless lunch yet send this sad, hungry young man out into the cold rain with just a bag of apples?
"Wait here", I whispered. "I have something for you."
I ran and grabbed my backpack. I breathed a sigh of relief as I retrieved the little plastic bag I had packed last week. There was a pair of gloves, chapstick, tissue and a $5.00 gift card for McDonald's.
"I hope this helps", I said, handing him the little bag. His hands shook as he reached out to grab it. His eyes filled with tears. "Thank you, Ma'am", he mumbled.
I introduced myself. He told me his name. I shook his hand. He told me he liked the piano and used to play when he was young. "I rap now," he said shyly. I told him to come back for food on Friday. There was also a list of food pantries in the bag, I told him.
I also said, "I have a student soon, but next time I see you, we can talk about your music".
He smiled. "God bless you", he whispered. Then he disappeared into the dark rain.