Jerida wanted to volunteer somewhere to help the homeless and disadvantaged in the lead-up to Christmas. I wanted one more new thing to do before my big finale next week. It was a match made in heaven. I did some searching on the internet and found a branch of the Salvation Army in the city that was having a big night of food and entertainment for the underprivileged community on Saturday night. I gave them a call on Friday and spoke to a girl named Jo.
'Oh, that's great! We could use more volunteers!' said Jo. This surprised me - With one day to go, I would have thought the place would have more volunteers than guests at this point. 'There's usually an application process, but since it's your first time, we'll just get you to come along and if you want to keep going, we'll take it from there.'
'Sounds fair,' I replied.
'Now, we have two shifts. One goes from 4-8pm and the other goes from 8-midnight. Which one would you like to do?'
'I was wondering if we could do both?'
'Oh, yes of course! Do you have a preference on whether you're in the kitchen or out on the floor with the guests?' To be honest, I wanted to actually meet the people I was supposed to be helping. helping. But I guessed everyone else would be thinking the same thing.
'Nope, wherever you need us is fine.'
'Great! So I'll see you at 4 o'clock. Make sure you wear jeans, closed shoes and a t-shirt that can get dirty.'
'Sure thing, see you then!'
When we turned up at the front doors, there were already a few homeless people milling around outside. The staff let us in and ushered us straight into the kitchen, past a band that was warming up which sounded terrible. They were trying to play Bad Moon Rising by Credence, but what they were playing sounded more like Bad Musical Timing. Once we were in the kitchen we met Carolyn. Carolyn was an older lady with a pleasant demeanour. She asked us to jump onto the electric meat cleaver - one of those things where you put the meat on the stand and move it back and forth over a spinning circular blade to slice it. We made our way through three whole chunks of turkey and probably eight chunks of beef.
Meanwhile, people around us were making other things. A large man named Gordon and his daughter Kimberly were at the big industrial stove top next to us stirring up some ratatouille. Elsewhere people were cutting up carrots and adding peas and corn into a big pot. There was activity everywhere. I could hear the band out in the hall playing their Bad Moon Rising again and it didn't sound any better.
Curiously, everyone seemed to finish their job at around the same time. As we got through the last of the meat and started cleaning the machine, every other group started finishing up one by one. Someone took our trays of meat away to heat them up and we waited around for our next job.
About twenty minutes later, everything was prepared. I helped carry the trays of meat back from the oven into the kitchen where everything was being set up to plate it. According to reports from the front-end staff, there was about 210 people waiting out there. We all took up stations so we could start up a sort of assembly line. I was at the very start of the line with a really cool bloke named Chris. We were in charge of vegetables. I was to grab a scoop of ratatouille and put it in each plate, Chris would put in a scoop of carrots and a scoop of peas and corn and we'd hand the plate off to the next station. I was ready. Jerida was at the next station ready to add some slices of turkey and beef. We all stood there and waited for the word to come from the front that they were ready for the food.
It had gotten pretty tense. No one was moving from their spot. Then, someone arrived at the kitchen window.
'They've made their speech, Matt's just saying grace now. I reckon it's time.'
Chris and I exchanged a look and dove in. I felt the need to be the fastest team because everyone else would be waiting for us. And we were pretty darn fast. We seemed to understand each other really well - even though we had to cross over each other often to get to the plates on the other side of the table, we very rarely bumped into each other. We had to find extra room at the next station to put all the plates. But that's not to say we were the fastest. All up, we ended up plating all 210 dishes in just 35 minutes. That's just over seven plates per minute. After all that was sorted, it was time for dessert. A much smaller assembly line formed where people cut up bits of pudding and added custard or put dollops of cream on moose. Others started to clean up the dishes. Looking around, everything seemed like it had been covered. So I grabbed some of the leftover vegetables and made some dinner, listening to the band play Bad Moon Rising.
While eating, I got to chat to some of the volunteers. Gordon and Kimberly introduced themselves to me and I learned that Gordon comes to do this every week. It was the first time for Kimberly.
'They do this every week?' I asked.
'Yeah, every Wednesday and Saturday. It's so rewarding, we've built a little community now.'
'Wow, I thought this was just I thing they do once a year on Christmas time.
Another man sat down and introduced himself.
'Hi, my name's Michael.'
'So's mine,' I replied. A fifth person sat down and I decided to do the honours.
'Hi! This is Gordon, that's Kimberly, that's Michael and I'm Michael.' The newcomer looked like he was trying to stifle a laugh.
'Hi... I'm Michael.'
We all lost it at that point and started chatting about how awesome it is being named Michael. Eventually I finished my meal and went back to check on progress. Everything still looked like it was under control, so I grabbed one of the pieces of pudding and got to work on that.
'Hello, how are you?'
'Have you got any leftovers?' she said. We'd collected all the leftovers and put them in as many plastic containers as we could find. I was going to ask someone if they were going to be donated to the homeless, but then I realized how much of a stupid question that was. I went over and grabbed one and handed it to her. She ran off and within seconds, three more guests had turned up in her place.
'Do you have any leftovers? They all chimed. I grabbed three more and handed them out. Then another lady came and asked for leftovers for her and the rest of her family. I thought "Sure, why not?" and handed her four containers. Then Karen walked in. Karen was a serious but kind woman in her forties who would be co-ordinating the second shift. She welcomed Jerida and myself and explained the situation.
'So in a minute, we'll open up the window here and start handing out these goods that have been donated by bakeries (she motioned to the hundreds of freezer bags that had been filled with pies, pasties, sausage rolls and finger buns and had been placed around the kitchen. I'll keep the leftovers hidden, because there's a limited amount. But if anyone asks for them, go ahead and give it to them.'
'Oh...' I said. 'I've already started giving them out.'
'Oh dear... Well anyone else will just have to wait until the window's open.'
I looked at the throng of people who had massed outside the kitchen door. They were expecting food. I sighed and walked over. One overweight woman with short hair and drool escaping her mouth piped up.
'Are there any leftovers?'
'Soon, we're not quite ready yet.'
'But I saw one lady running out the door with four of them.'
I cringed. 'Yeah, some idiot's been handing them out too early. Don't worry, they'll come soon.'
The lady turned away, disgusted. 'Bullshit, this happens every year...'
Well... At least I'm not the only one.
Ten minutes later, we were ready to open the window. Jerida and I worked as a team to get through the lineup of downtrodden people, all looking for a handout. We got through them a bit quicker than expected, and we found ourselves with nothing to do while we waited for more people to show up.
Between guests, a large bald man with glasses approached and introduced himself to us.
'Hi, I'm Matt,' he said. 'I'm the pastor of this church.'
'I'm Jerida, and this is Michael,' replied Jerida. 'Sorry, did you say this is a church?'
'Oh yeah,' said Matt sheepishly. 'All Salvation Army branches are churches. We've been holding these dinners twice a week since we started and we've really built our own little community.'
'Wow, that's amazing!' said Jerida.
'So you're more a religion than a charity?' I joked.
'The two are one and the same. You can't separate them,' replied Matt. 'You're lucky you caught us tonight, it's our last night of the year. We don't do anything on Christmas eve or Christmas day because we figure there are so many organisations doing it then, it wouldn't make sense trying to compete.'
'What you guys do here is seriously amazing...' mused Jerida. 'I was raised Christian but the church my family goes to is.... well, they're an elderly congregation who are out of touch with the youth. I always joked that if I heard one more hundred-year-old song on a pipe organ, I would set it on fire.' Matt laughed.
'No, we're much more in touch with our youth here. And we've got much better instruments.'
We chatted for a bit longer about the instruments we all played or would like to play and then Matt shook our hands and thanked us warmly for coming to help out.
'What a great guy,' I said after he left, taking out my camera. 'Now, when the next person comes, do you mind taking a photo of me serving them?'
Jerida had a pained look on her face. 'I, um... well... no,' she said. I gave her a questioning look. 'It's just... this isn't an exhibition. We're not trying to turn it into a show. These guys get it - they don't just talk the talk, they do God's work, in a way that's actually productive. And the people they're helping... they feel like someone actually cares about them, which is something I'd say has been sorely missing from their lives. That's probably why they're here in the first place.'
I guiltily put my camera down and turned back to the window. She was absolutely right. I did genuinely want to help these people, but I wanted to be seen doing it. I didn't have the empathy to understand why what I was doing was so important. After handing out all the bread, I moved out to the hall where the party was still going. There was only one person left on the stage, and she was clearly having a ball - strumming her acoustic guitar, belting out every song she knew and interacting with the crowd between songs. I guess she didn't sound that bad... The rest of her band mates we're sitting off to the side heartily cheering her on. People were in front of the stage dancing - old and young, boy and girl... even one woman on crutches. At tables around the room, I could see a pair of twins playing cards against each other. There was a teenage mum and dad sharing a tender kiss. One man had an old, beaten-up laptop out and there was a very mismatched group of people crowded around, watching whatever was happening on it. Outside, men and women were smoking cigarettes together while their kids ran around them with blackened faces, chasing each other and playing with toy trucks. It looked exactly the same as when my own family gets together. And that's what these people were - a family. Brought together by trying circumstances that I would never understand with my privileged upbringing. But at least now could empathize.
I spent the rest of the night serving cake and pizza to excited people and slowly clearing tables and chairs as people left to go home. I met Jimmy Barnes' half-brother Swanee, who had dropped in to play some music too. He came up to me and shook my hand, congratulating me on the job I was doing. I was flattered, but a little embarrassed. Jerida should have gotten that congratulations, not me. At exactly midnight, the hall was spotless. The chairs and tables hand been cleaned and put away, the band and stage had been packed up and the guests had all gone home. A couple of them had settled on the back porch of the building and were lying in sleeping bags. Life would go back to being harsh for them until the next time the church group met. Everyone was absolutely exhausted. My exhaustion hadn't hit me until the end, since for my main job I'm often on my feet for eight hours anyway. But nevertheless, the exhaustion did hit me too.
'Thanks again,' said Jo, who we'd finally met late in the night. 'I'll send you an email early next year to see if you'd like to continue working with us.'
'I think it's pretty safe to say that it's been a privilege and you'll definitely see us both again.