I imagine that when most Americans think about feeding the homeless, a soup kitchen with a line of hungry people comes to mind. This is precisely the image that I had before my trip on the streets of El Salvador last night. I never would have imagined what I saw. Preparing for the trip was easy due to the "organization and efficiency freaks" that we Americans are. We set up an assembly line and quickly prepared 200 meals.
And then we were off. Speeding off into the darkness, those of us in the back of the truck, facing sideways and backward, quickly became disoriented. We twisted around corners and stopped suddenly at an underpass. As it was just minutes after we had set off, many of us wondered why we had stopped. People began to appear out of nowhere; men, women, and children creeping out from bushes or from under rags on the ground began running towards our truck. Kurt had told us to keep out eyes open but we clearly had not. We could not see these forgotten people, these, hiding in plain sight. Handing out bags and muttering "Dios te bendiga", we considered the attitudes of those we had come to serve. Some were clearly simply starving, some were quite aggressive and tried to get two bags, some were clearly under the influence and dazed or confused. And others were extremely grateful. Clearly appreciative of what was a small effort on our part, these individuals did not cease to smile and shout their thanks.
A quote that was shared today comes to mind: "What we take for granted is someone else's prayer." We continued to race the darkness through the streets, meeting and feeding children no older than 9 years, prostitutes, and a pregnant teenager who had been a part of the quincenera two years ago. But these people are regulars and know the sound of the truck, not having to wait for the shouts of "comida!" before they started running towards it. We were consumed by apprehension when we arrived at the train tracks, the spot where Kurt told us we would be getting out of the truck to hand out more dinners. Again battling the darkness, we maneuvered though sleeping bodies, belongings, human waste, and trash. The sights, smells, and sounds of poverty were all consuming. Around 50 people lying scattered upon the ground in the dark is a scene that will not be forgotten.
Feeding the homeless in San Salvador was an experience that caught me entangled between fact and fiction. Poverty in itself is a tangible concept. We've all been affected by it directly and repeatedly, whether through family, friends, or our own experiences. It is the people affected by this disease that are less easy to understand. These people who have been lying on the streets for days, months, years, and perhaps decades. These people who lie in the darkness and sprint when they hear Kurt coming. This experience was clearly unique to us, but surely not to them.
It's tough to feel optimistic after last night. My preconceptions would have me questioning why they don't go to shelters or orphanages or find jobs. The realities of these situations, however, prove that alterier circumstances exist. Many of the adults have jobs, they simply don't pay enough to get them off the streets or enough food. Some of the kids are unable to go to orphanages as they have parents but they are abusive or addicts.
As I reflect on my night, two prayers come to mind. The first is that their situations improve. That the children return to the orphanages and that the adults do the impossible: find jobs or another way out. The second is that these people realize that these gifts did not come from us but from God. That he is thinking of them and providing. A verse comes to mind as I attempt to come to terms with what I saw. Jesus reminds us in Mark 10:31 that "Many who are first will be last and the last, first."