Thursday, December 20
Jeff smiled to himself as he locked up the church. Play practice had just ended, and it had been a good one. The actors knew their lines almost impeccably now, and the technical problems were a thing of the past. Samuel was proving to be invaluable, and Jeff wondered how he had managed before. The man could do almost everything and seemed to have precognition. He knew what Jeff wanted almost before he knew himself and had it done in no time. He also had a lot of initiative, often perfecting sets or costumes without any orders to do so. The man was a theater god, it seemed.
He had also been harping on helping others again especially talking about the soup kitchen that he had mentioned previously. Jeff had finally promised to go just to get him to shut up, and yet he realized now that he had failed to get directions to the place. It was interesting that the guy had put so much emphasis on the soup kitchen and then forgot directions. Maybe he thought that Jeff already knew where the place was. Whatever the case, that piece of information had been neglected, and while Jeff hated to break his word, he didn't see how he could avoid this one. Maybe if he just started walking, he would end up there by chance. Somehow with Samuel involved, that wouldn't surprise him at all.
Jeff left the church behind and headed into town. He wasn't putting a whole lot of money on finding the place, but he had been spending so much time indoors lately that the fresh air would do him good. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and walked through the snow on the sidewalk. There was just a light dusting, but it was enough to make a crunching sound as he walked over it. By now, Christmas was in the air, on the store fronts, plastered on signs and hanging from street poles. Santa Clause, Christmas trees, bells, candy canes, and Christmas sales were as far as the eye could see, cluttering the town. Yes, things were certainly starting to feel like Christmas.
Jeff continued to walk through the town, keeping an eye out for the soup kitchen but never expecting to actually see it. It was almost one o'clock; he had been walking around for a half hour already. It certainly didn't feel as though it had been that long. It was time to head home to a nice warm house where lunch would be waiting for him. He turned around to head back and out of nowhere, sitting on the edge of the commercial district sandwiched between a rundown, ghetto restaurant and an abandoned building was a soup kitchen. It was a very unassuming building but not dirty, like Jeff had expected. The front, at least, was cleaner than that of the restaurant directly adjacent with the only indication of its purpose being a small sign in the window.
Jeff stood on the sidewalk for a minute, trying to decide if he should go inside. He didn't imagine that he would enjoy the experience much, but then again, he had thought the same about the nursing home yesterday. If nothing else, it was a new experience, and he didn't have to come back tomorrow if he didn't like it. He set his jaw and walked through the front door, expecting to hate everything about the place and was pleasantly surprised. The inside of the building was as clean and tidy as the outside and it wasn't set up like he had expected. The long tables with dozens of homeless crowded around them that he had expected to have to walk around and between were nowhere to be seen. Mid-sized cafe style tables and chairs filled the room with a line style serving area at the rear where the registers would be in a normal store. For a moment, Jeff wondered if he had the right place, but there was no mistaking the many patrons who crowded the place for anything but the homeless. He approached the serving line, looking for someone who appeared to be in charge.
"The line starts down there," one of the servers, motioning with his head to the back of the line. "Grab a plate and utensils and we'll serve you as soon as we can."
"Oh, I'm not here to get food," Jeff said. "A friend told me about this place, and I came by to see if you needed any help."
"Jeff, right?" the server said. "Samuel said you'd be by. The door down there goes into the kitchen. Tell Steve that Samuel sent you; he'll tell you what to do."
"How do I know who Steve is?" Jeff asked, looking warily at the door that the server had motioned to.
"He's built like a house," the server answered. "You can't miss him, even if you try."
Jeff was skeptical of the statement. He doubted that anyone was as big as a house. He had missed plenty of people in his time both on purpose and unintentionally. Never underestimate a person’s ability to miss things. Jeff pushed open the kitchen door, stepped into the kitchen, and immediately recanted his recent thoughts. His eyes were immediately drawn to Steve, the largest man by far in the building and probably in the whole city. He was literally as big as a house; perhaps a house for small elves but a house non-the-less. All that Jeff could do for a few seconds was stare at the guy. One thing was for certain, a person definitely couldn’t miss him.
“Samuel sent you, right?” Steve asked without looking up from what he was doing.
“Are you speaking to me?” Jeff asked and pointed with a thumb toward his chest.
“I don’t see anyone else who just walked in the door,” Steve answered, still not looking up from his work. “I know everyone else here, so that would just leave you.”
“Yes, Samuel sent me. I’m…”
“Jeff. I know,” Steve interrupted. “Well, you came at just the right time, Jeff. We’re down a few people, and things are starting to get a little crazy. They always do around Christmas.”
“I imagine so,” Jeff agreed. “What do you need me to do?”
“See the sink back there?” Steve asked and jerked a thumb over his shoulder.
“No sink, just a massive pile of dirty dishes,” Jeff said as he looked to where Steve had pointed.
“The sink is under the dishes,” Steve said. “We’re running out of them. I need you to start washing and do it fast. ”
“Got you covered,” Jeff said as he rolled his sleeves up. He headed to the pile of dishes at the back of the store, now able to make out the general shape of the sink underneath it. There were certainly a lot of them, more of them than he had ever seen in one place before. It would probably take an hour or more to get through all of them, but he was actually happy with the task. Homeless people made him uncomfortable and he was relieved that he didn’t have to work with them.
“Thanks for showing up, Jeff,” Steve said. There were only a handful of people left now, finishing up with the kitchen cleaning. “When Samuel said that you were going to come, I’ll admit that I had my doubts.”
“So did I,” Jeff concurred. “This wasn’t exactly my idea of a fun day, but it turned out pretty well. I do have a question though.”
“What is that?” Steve asked.
“Well, this is a charity, so how do you manage to keep it open? Most of the people that were here looked like they probably have families to support and jobs to work.”
“It’s not easy,” Steve agreed. “The help is all volunteer work by people who can find the time. I’m in charge but only around Christmas because that’s when I can take a significant amount of vacation at a stretch. As for the supplies, we rely mostly on donations and such. It’s tight, but God’s made it work so far.”
“How long is ‘so far?’” Jeff asked. “How long has this place been operational?”
“We’re coming up on three years in January,” Steve said. “Pretty young by most standards, but we’ve done our fair share of good in those three years.”
“I have no doubt about that,” Jeff said as he finished wiping down a table. He tossed the paper towel in the trash. “Well, if you don’t have anything else for me to do, I’m going to head home.”
“A couple of us head to the bar down the street after we close up here,” Steve said. “You’re more than welcome to come along if you want.”
“I’m not exactly 21 yet,” Jeff said. “Besides, I need to get home and spend some time with my family.”
“I hear you, man,” Steve said. “Have a great evening. Will we see you tomorrow?”
“I can’t swear to anything, but I’ll try to make it out here.”
As Jeff closed the door behind him, he realized that he had actually meant what he had told Steve. Working with the homeless today had given him a new appreciation of a lot of things. He had even outgrown his discomfort of them after working the serving line for an hour or so. Just as with the old people at the nursing home, these were just people. Sure they had significantly different situations than he did, but that didn’t make them scary, just different. And Samuel had been right about service work. It was good for the soul as well as helping to get in the Christmas spirit. Jeff would certainly be back tomorrow. He would make sure of that.
As he walked home, his mind drifted to the Christmas Story that he had heard so many time before. About how Jesus had come to the earth as a baby two thousand years earlier just so that he could die thirty-three years later for our sins. Christmas was about giving, not this commercial spin that stores and distributors had put on it. Santa was about getting more stuff, not giving it. What if Jesus had done that as well? Just looked for what he could get out of Christmas? If he had been like that, we would all be in serious trouble. But he hadn’t thought about himself at all when he came to earth as the greatest gift of all time. He had come selflessly as the sacrifice for our sins, and we were supposed to act like him. If Jesus did that couldn’t he, Jeffrey Byron, also make a few sacrifices? What were a few hours with people that made him feel a little uncomfortable when compared to Jesus’ sacrifice?
Suddenly the play that had seemed to be a matter of life and death no longer seemed as important. He would make sure that it turned out as well as was physically possible, but he wasn’t stressing over it anymore. The past two days had shown him what the true meaning of Christmas was. It wasn’t about what you got or how you appeared to others. It was all about selfless giving and Jesus’ sacrifice. With this incredibly old but at the same time new revelation, Jeff walked the rest of the way home with a bounce in his step. Not event he frigid temperature could ruin his mood.