..Victoria Barkley..

Real Soul Food

It is an undisclosed location in Manhattan on a Saturday afternoon. The ever growing line of patiently waiting hungry people nearly covers our view of the long tables filled with steaming containers of fresh, home-cooked, nutritious, vegetarian food. It is an outdoor smorgasbord, where anyone in need can get a meal – no questions asked. And it's all free of charge, thanks to a group of spontaneous volunteers who call themselves the River Service. The coordinators are a Latino couple who weave in between the lines and tables. They beam with pleasure as they greet old friends and newcomers alike.

I found this place "by accident" (as if there ever was such a thing). A couple of friends I ran into were heading there, their shopping carts full of food and bottled water. They asked if I wanted to join them and I eagerly tagged along. This, I had to see.

Jennifer and Sam (not their real names), have been practicing acts of random feeding the homeless for many months now. "It is a joy to share," says Jennifer, giving Sam a warm smile. They have been married for 20 years and their love for each other is used as a spring board to share food, kind words and a healing touch to wherever it's most needed. This Saturday, they are both River Service volunteers. They offer to introduce me to the other "regulars."

Bit by bit, they piece the story together of how this all started. It was about 9 years ago, when four people got together, with two shopping bags of prepared sandwiches, moving around the city, giving food away to the homeless. They told two people, who told two people...and pretty soon, they needed a permanent place to set up their weekly sidewalk buffet.

"There were problems in the beginning," says Jim, (not his real name) "we weren't a proper group with credentials and/or permits, so the police gave us a hard time."

"So, what did you do?" I asked

"We just asked in prayer for signs if we should continue to feed the homeless. And we also kept on moving around the city, trying to find the perfect spot. We did not want to become institutionalized... just wanted to keep it personal and spontaneous. Those who needed us – patrons and volunteers – always seemed to be able to find us. It was uncanny. We now keep in touch by phone and email."

There were plenty of positive omens. Whatever they needed came to them in miraculous ways. "One Saturday, we began serving hot food on fold-up tables, but didn't have any rice. Within a half-hour some ladies showed up with big bowls of fragrant rice, apologizing that they did not know what to bring. We were just laughing. It was exactly what was needed."

The food is always paid for and prepared by the volunteers, who serve them as well. Not everyone brings food. Some, like Tara, show up occasionally. "I live nearby, and when I have the time, I like to give back because it makes me feel good. I work in PR and after a hectic week I love the idea of serving people who are in need."

The spontaneous givers are multi-ethnic, all ages and come from all walks of life. Manish, originally from India, travels here from New Jersey with his family. There are children from his community putting on protective gloves to measure out food today. He heard about it from a neighbor and thought it was a great opportunity to serve. They donate food and time once-a-month.

Then there is Peter, raised Catholic, who was homeless himself when he began volunteering with the group. He now has an apartment and travels around the city on his bicycle. He stays at the end of the line, sharing words of comfort, support and encouragement. He calls himself a free-lance, unpaid social worker who's been there, done that and can speak on the same level with those who need him.

There are big plates of more food appearing from inside a van. The vehicle was donated by a wealthy passerby who liked the grassroots nature of the feeding project. The week after he first stopped by, he pulled up in a van, with insurance and registration pre-paid for the year. Without too many words, he handed them the keys and wished them good luck. It was another miracle.

Perhaps the most striking feature of this motley crew is a desire to remain anonymous. They like to give and serve without "getting credit," having to join an organization, follow specific religious beliefs or creating an institution. One of them hands me a flyer with the slogan "Hands that help people are better than lips that pray to God." It is a Sai Baba quote but River Service is strictly non-denominational. It is spirituality in action at its best without structure or dogma. There is no money involved. The issue of hunger is directly addressed with food, period.

"Love is what we all have in common," says John "When we feed another, we are the ones receiving nourishment."

I look around at the diners, some returning for seconds, and the servers. Everyone is smiling. There is a sense of infectious joy, abundance and goodwill. Amazingly, no one is cranky or ill mannered. After the crowds thin out the servers prepare plates for themselves of the leftovers. Food prepared with love never tasted so good. We're all one big human family. And it is wonderful.

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Other stories by Victoria Barkley:
Birthday Kirtan
Is Anybody There? – movie review
The Gift
Silver Sixpence in her Shoe
Breakfast with Scot – movie review
Sex Drive – movie review
What Just Happened – movie review
American Teen – movie review
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian – movie review
A Message From Mom
A Tale of Two Bunnies
Animal Nature
Into the Wild – movie review
Darshan in the Dark Light of the Moon
Love Never Dies
Green Roofs, Weeds and Wildflowers
Greeting Sunrise
Arctic Tale – movie review
Seasons of Gandhi