Food from the Trash

Food from the Trash

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(2013)
His large slack pants were fastened around his thin waist like a heavy-duty drawstring trash bag, the kind used to bundle up red and yellow leaves this time of the year. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary about him. He wore a button-down shirt, and tufts of stiff, curly gray hair peeked out from under his ball cap.

The rain had poured at a constant 45-degree angle throughout the day in Jackson. It was so cold that for a brief moment, one could see each puff of breath before it was carried it away by the wind.

But waiting for my brother to finish his business in the downtown train station, I was cozy on the passenger side of his car, lost in my romanticized thoughts of travel, far-away places, and the many people who had passed through this station.

My mind, numbed by a lifetime of seeing homeless wandering down streets, jolted out of its absent-minded musing. I wasn’t in a movie. The scene in front of me was real life. The man shuffled into the glow of light cast from the streetlights that lined the front of the train station, and in a routine way, began rummaging through the green metal trashcan. My stomach coiled into a knot.

He found a white Styrofoam box. Someone’s dinner trash, I thought. My stomach tightened even more as he took out the leftover soup cup, tossed the box back into the trashcan, tipped his head and poured the cold liquid into his mouth. After taking it in one big gulp, he moved on to the next trashcan. And then the next….

I looked up from stainless steel pans full of baked beans into the unshaven, weather beaten faces of that man’s mirror image. More than 60 men lined up for a hot meal at the Gateway Rescue Mission, the only one that most of them would have for the day. I glanced up between putting a scoop of beans and half a canned peach onto each tray. Many of them stared back with a dead, lifeless gaze.

Gateway Rescue Mission, founded in 1948, provided 146,000 meals to a portion of Jackson’s 600 homeless men, women and children last year. In addition to giving hot meals, the Mission has separate homeless shelters for men and women and a rehabilitation program for men. And, the Mission runs two thrift stores.

“We feed hungry people, shelter the homeless, and work to restore the broken and addicted through the love of Christ,” Rex Baker, Gateway Mission director said. “Rescue ministry is not glamorous. It’s front-line, dirt under your fingernails combat with lives hanging in the balance.”

When I arrived at the Mission at 11 a.m., I was the only woman serving. One worker, Ron, gave me an apron and showed me around the kitchen. He then told me about the men’s rehab program.

In the program, men spend the first 30 days detoxing at the Jackson center, where we were working, Ron explained. Then, they spent the remainder of the 12 months at the main campus in Simpson County. After being in it for almost a year, Ron is about to graduate.

The cook, Matt, gave me my assignment and showed me how big each serving should be. Matt has been working at the Mission since he graduated from the program two years ago.

“This is so different than what I used to do,” Matt said. “I worked in packaging and shipping for 20 years. And now, I work in a soup kitchen.”

Many men, like Matt, who go through the program come back to work or move into other areas of ministry.

“I’ve seen people come through our doors who are dead today because of drugs.” Baker said. “I’ve also seen people come through here who are today married with children, employed and living a stand-up Christian life.”

At 11:54, the quietness in the bland cinderblock dining room was shattered by jolly greetings of “Danita!” “Danita, you came, and it is not Sunday!” “How are you Danita?” The woman, who had just entered, enthusiastically greeted each kitchen worker by name and asked about each person’s week as she tied on her cheery red apron.

It was as though sunshine and electricity had been switched on in the kitchen as it filled with a flurry of laughing and chatter. Each man who was still in the program filled her in on his week as she listened, nodding occasionally and interjecting questions.

Danita Redd, a licensed Messianic minister, has been serving in the kitchen each Sunday for the past two years. Today, she stopped by to drop off study material and jumped in to help serve lunch.

When the doors opened at noon, Danita’s chirpy greetings had an electrifying effect on each person she called by name. The dead eyes suddenly sparkled and weary-looking faces broke into wide smiles. Many people tarried by the serving station after the meal, just to talk with the woman who cared about them enough to remember each name.

In between chatting with them, as she focused on scooping greens and beef into a steady stream of trays, she told me about how much she loved working with them.

“Mission trips, together with working here, have shown me that no matter where I am, there will always be people in need.” Redd said.

“Serving here," she ended, "has been a blessing to me.”