Surrey’s Interfaith Feed the Hungry project is simple and successful.
Surrey’s Lookout Shelter serves lunch five days a week. Across the street from the shelter, in the parking lot of Victory Family Church, a local interfaith group serves lunch every other Saturday. The group includes Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians and — this week, as I was finally able to visit — Jews.
The logistics of this potluck lunch are simple. Members of the church set out three long plastic tables. Volunteers bring dishes they cooked at home that morning. Cooks have only one rule to follow: “Cook something you would serve to your family.”
This Saturday is a beautiful, sunny day. Along the quiet street, folks sit out in small groups, next to carts piled with belongings. Mostly, they are young or middle-aged men and women, a few accompanied by dogs.
Gradually, they line up inside the parking lot. One server gives each guest a paper plate and plastic fork. Other volunteers serve whatever the cooks brought. Some guests help their friends get food. Every guest says, “thank you.”
Volunteers lay out used clothing on blankets. Women sift through them, mixing and matching fashionable outfits.
Under a makeshift canopy, a band of church musicians play Christian music. Their music adds to the event’s festive atmosphere. The minister offers a Bible reading and sermon, but not until everyone has finished eating. A few guests listen; most go back out to the sidewalk or inside to the shelter.
Inside the shelter’s lounge, a movie plays, while people sit at tables. Some watch the movie; some greet acquaintances warmly; others lay their heads on the table for some sleep. A shelter worker encourages a man to take a donated pair of khaki pants. “Everyone’s wearing these! Go for it.” Posted on the walls are harm reduction posters. “There has been an increase in overdoses and our need to call 911. Street drugs are unpredictable. Do not shoot up alone.”
Volunteers have a range of reactions to the scene. I watched as one man, volunteering only for the second time, was asked, “How is your experience of this?” He looked nervous and said, “Interesting. I’m just trying to take it all in.” Another volunteer, in his fourth year of participation, said, “You might think everyone in our city is so wealthy…but then you come here and learn the reality is different.” A third volunteer, one of the group’s organizers, said, “Instead of judging people, I have learned to be curious about them.”
That third volunteer is Arun Chatterjee, the visionary behind Surrey’s Interfaith Feed the Hungry project. Some years ago, Arun opened several small family businesses, hoping to provide his relatives with nice houses and cars. At one store, local people often came in to ask if they could receive food for free. Arun was surprised by their honesty and their need. Through their eyes, he became aware of a stratified, often uncaring society. Gradually, Arun’s life changed. He became a social service volunteer, a theology student, and a multi-faith chaplain; his family became a clergy family. On this particular Saturday, he wandered through the parking lot, greeting volunteers and guests, and lending a hand where it was needed.
I was glad he invited me; I learned many things.
First: the volunteers are a lovely bunch. They praised my simple spinach quiches up and down the line. “Wow,” I thought, “Maybe my food really makes a difference!”
Second: the guests look out for one another’s food, belongings, animals and well-being. The community around Lookout Shelter is a strong one.
Third: being homeless is a hard life. When the musicians sang, “my God is a god of life,” I heard melodies of gratitude, suffering, desire, and hope.
Fourth: feeding the hungry is not so complicated. You make food, and bring it to people.
Fifth: we at Vancouver School of Theology are really blessed to have extraordinary students like Arun who reach across social boundaries to bring people together.
Photo supplied by Arun Chatterjee.