This blog was written by Karen Giesbrecht, who is a registered dietitian with a particular interest in mental health, strong communities, good stories and real food. She wove all these together in Happy Colon, Happy Soul: An Exploration of Why and How we Share Food (Wipf & Stock, 2019). At home in Vancouver, Canada, Karen takes great delight in sharing good meals with her family, friends, and those in her community who know hunger. Karen is a great friend of the Maundy Cafe. www.karengiesbrecht.com (firstname.lastname@example.org)
“Hmm. I am a walking miracle,” said Gary, reflectively, in my office one morning, where I work as the dietitian in a residential recovery program. He had come to weigh himself, and was pleased that he had dropped a few pounds since he had started treatment. Now that life had stabilized, he could also recognize that he was lucky to be alive.
To be more accurate, Gary had first gained weight, as he was undernourished when he started this program. Then, as is typical of vulnerable bodies healing after a hard season, aided by ample pastries and portion sizes, he had gained more weight than he was comfortable with. Now, after a few months of routine, balanced meals and support to address the reasons that his life had slipped into chaos, Gary was feeling better about himself, and his physical health was also improving.
Gary is in his mid-50’s and comes from a large family in Eastern Canada. He slowly made his way across the country in his 20’s, looking for adventure, and then settled in the construction industry here on the West Coast. He worked hard and indulged often for several decades, and eventually life and alcohol use slipped out of control. He ended up on the streets of Vancouver, and when the weather was harsh, he made his way to a shelter. He cycled between the streets and a shelter a few times, and finally was ready to start treatment.
I do not know how often Gary visited the Maundy Cafe during his stints on the street, but he was sustained by the network of community food programs in Vancouver and the caring individuals behind them. There were some bleak years for Gary - often cold, wet, and hungry. Several times, he fought nasty infections that nearly took his life. Cravings for alcohol overpowered his drive for food, a hot shower, toothpaste and other daily self-care practices most of us cannot imagine living without.
Occasional meals are not enough to change someone’s circumstances. Only an adequate income and secure home will do that. But just as every lost coin and every lost sheep matters, every meal and every dry pair of socks matters. Every time we learn someone’s name, it matters.
Can we, though our programs like the Maundy Cafe, prevent someone from slipping into life on the streets or into our emergency support systems? Sometimes, we can. Once someone has lost their home, income and social network, can we lessen their distress as we connect them to needed services? Often, we can do that, too.
We are not all called to be on the front lines. During the pandemic, few of us can volunteer at programs like the Maundy Cafe to meet people like Gary and his peers. But there is much we can do. Some of us are in a position to help guide and fund community supports. Some of us can pray for and encourage those who are on the front lines. All of us can follow the current public health recommendations that will get us through this pandemic and make the world safer for our most vulnerable neighbours, so they will survive, too, and can recognize, again, that they are walking miracles.