Feeding the Homeless, Washington DC
Ever since 2008, on the second and fourth Sundays of every month, members of the Sai Baba Center of Washington DC and the Shanti Yoga Ashram have joined hands to prepare a hot vegetarian meal for homeless people.
We prepare and serve a seasonal menu. The ingredients include fresh vegetables from local organic and bio-dynamic farms (via the community-supported agriculture operated by the Shanti Yoga Ashram). Every meal is vegetarian and includes staples such as rice, beans, lentils, nurturing herbs and spices, and lots of unconditional love.
Preparing the food
We begin at 9.00 am in the kitchen of the Shanti Yoga Ashram. Devotional songs play in the background as volunteers wash, chop, and peel vegetables. Although conversations among the volunteers are okay, silence is encouraged in the kitchen. Silence preserves energy and allows us to divert more of our energy, positive intentions, and love into the food we are preparing. Often, volunteers sing along with devotional songs or repeat Divine Names as they work. The kitchen environment is peaceful and full of love.
The food is appreciated – used to its fullest capacity. Any food that cannot be used is returned to Mother Nature via the compost bin. I sometimes find myself thinking about the people who grew the food and the people who will be receiving the food. I pray that the recipients receive the nutrients their bodies need, as well as some comfort in knowing we care. These thoughts seem to create a positive attitude and inner balance within me – they cause a reaction in my body.
By noon, the van is loaded with one to two trays of rice, a bean dish or lentils, a vegetable dish, purified water, and hot tea. We depart with enough food to serve 80-plus people.
Serving the food, with love
It was late fall the first time we went downtown to serve. We saw several homeless people on the way, but they were all scattered about, in small clusters of people here and there. I remember setting up the serving table for the first time. Only a handful of people came for the food. Those of us serving took plates of food in search of those little clusters that we had seen on our way there. We spread the word about a hot meal available that cold afternoon. About 40 people showed up. There was plenty of food left over.
After a few months, the service project was in full swing. Now, upon arriving at McPherson Square Park in Washington DC, we are greeted by familiar faces. They are our friends – our brothers and sisters – the hungry and the homeless. Our meeting time and place is well known by now. The hopelessness that once filled their eyes has been replaced with gratitude. Their heads held high with confidence, the regulars meet us at the back of the van to help unload. We now work together to set up the serving table. This involvement of the homeless helps bring us together as equals. One can see the confidence and joy shared among those helping, both volunteers and homeless alike.
I have seen confidence, too, in the eyes of men who are able to help lift the heavy load of food, water, and tea from the car to the serving station. They, like us, are experiencing the transformative gift of service to one’s fellow people. Everyone at the park is relieved to know a meal is coming. The serving stations are humbly made from old doors on two sawhorse stands. They are set with tablecloths, with the cutlery laid at one end, the food in the middle, and hot tea at the other end. A single file line starts to form, in a more civilized manner than Metro riders lining up to take the escalator on a morning commute! The homeless brothers and sisters have shown us patience, and together we have made our own community.
Members of the Sai Center and the Shanti Yoga Ashram take posts at each of the serving stations. Plates and napkins are handed out to each individual before they come through the serving line.
It is important to mention that the serving component is not always comfortable – it is not easy to see and smell someone who does not have the means to shower. Many homeless persons suffer from mental disorders, and communication is not always easy. It is heartbreaking to see a former soldier in his fatigues stand in line – possibly unable to adjust to life in the U.S. after traumatic experiences in battle zones.
Despite all this, we get a chance to look in their eyes and see God residing in each person. It is all His divine play. Through serving at the park I have been able to turn sorrow into joy. Sathya Sai Baba says “If you lift the hand to serve, to help, to console, to encourage another person, you are lifting it for God, because in every person is God.” I can’t think of a greater gift. It’s a rewarding challenge to smile as you look into the eyes of a hungry person, put food on their plate, and remember that they too are divine.
Sathya Sai Center of Washington DC