“Do you have a rice cooker you could bring over?” I’m on the phone with my 15-year-old neighbor Julie as I walk through the aisles of the grocery store looking for curry powder.
“Yeah we do. I’ll check with my mom and see if it’s okay!” she replies.
I grab the curry powder. It’s $4.99—unexpectedly high.
“Sweet. If not it’s totally cool it would just be a huge help tonight. I’ll be home in 15 minutes; come on over then!”
We hang up and I fumble through the remaining aisles finding the ingredients that I couldn’t get in the grocery store in our Summit Lake neighborhood. Standing in line, I’m hit with a wave of fatigue—what a day to be battling a sinus infection. The rest of the day I had been taking it easy, but it seems like now I’d have to kick the adrenaline up a notch. Our South Street Ministries AfterSchool volunteer celebration dinner is less than two hours away and I’m hosting at the Long Street house. This is no time to be consumed by fatigue.
I’m finally pulling into my driveway and Julie is coming around the porch with a rice cooker nestled in her arm. Though I’m tired, I find myself genuinely smiling at her. I’m excited to spend time cooking together. We walk in and find a handful of kids hanging around the common spaces—they needed help with their homework and didn’t realize AfterSchool was over for the holidays so they came to our house. I giggle as I haul the grocery bags to the kitchen; something about that strikes me as beautiful. I can’t quite name it in the moment.
Julie and I look at the recipes to get started for the AfterSchool volunteer celebration dinner. She asks me what is on the menu, and I just laugh—the menu was a typical Amber moment. In my stubbornness to constantly immerse myself (and others) into new cultural experiences, we ended up with a Fijian/Hawaiian/Chinese/Southern/potentially Indian infused cuisine experience. I didn’t realize until all the ingredients were on the table that the menu in all ways looked and felt entirely ridiculous and random. We were in for an eclectic and delightful meal celebration.
“This is how you tell if you have enough water for the rice without using the cup.” Julie shows me how to measure with my finger, and I nod and take note. As I’m listening to her the kids are filling the common spaces with drums and percussion instruments, pianos and laughter. I giggle and my heart is full. I am in my home, cooking a feast alongside my neighbor and friend, and kids are doing homework and playing the drums, and my heart is full.
Soon Z comes into the kitchen and wants to help. I look at her face, so curious and eager to learn. I set her up in helping create the salad by cutting lettuce, celery, carrots. Young Shawn wants to help, too, so we set him up in peeling carrots. They both go to AfterSchool, and deep inside I find beauty in how they’re helping make the meal that will be served to volunteers who have extended their time to serve them. They’re so excited to be of help, Shawn asking if he’s shredding the carrots right and Z is chopping lettuce confident and sure on the counter top.
Ava’s head pops into the kitchen: “Can I help in any way?” I glance at the clock and see that we’ve got five minutes until the event starts and soon set her up with dicing cilantro and scallions. I had been adamant that AfterSchool volunteers not help but only receive during this celebration, but with five minutes to go I throw that rule out of the window and welcome any help. Many hands enter during this time—volunteers, kids, staff—as everyone pulls together the final preparations for the meal.
We’re standing in a circle, kids, staff members, and volunteers alike, and we pray to open the feast of celebration and thanksgiving. Upon hearing the “Amen,” I raise my eyes to the small group. “So…we’ve got quite the meal ahead of us. We’ve got edamame with Thai sweet chili sauce as an appetizer, or pupu. There’s gifted bread from Panera, and a light Chinese salad with rice noodles. We’ve got rice as a base, and glazed chicken curry and Fijian beef stew as main courses. Betsy has gifted a cheesecake dessert. We’ve got sparkling white and red grape juices to drink, and water with sliced oranges. Eat up, friends. Let’s celebrate.”
* * *
An hour later, I find myself standing in the corner at the end of the night, taking it all in. I find myself thinking about our eclectic, culturally sporadic meal, and how it didn’t make much sense together, but it was good. Looking around at the laughing faces and conversation, I come to a realization that this was the perfect kind meal for this group—a group that is sporadic, coming from many different places, but comes together and it is good.
“Happy Birthday to you
Happy Birthday to you
Happy Birthday dear Bob
Happy Birthday to you.”
We’re laughing because the ceiling fan blew out the candles but Bob is rolling with the punches and is laughing, red in the face and caught so off guard. We’re celebrating one another, we’re celebrating Bob, we’re celebrating the kids, we’re celebrating a semester of AfterSchool—we’re just celebrating. After a semester of AfterSchool that during some days was difficult, to celebrate together was a gift.
Sometimes I’m struck with the richness of life. Today was one of those days. On the outside it was so simple—a cooked meal, a shared meal. But on the inside it was a day full of rich moments, of borrowed rice cookers and little hands helping, of hospitality and thanks, of an improv birthday cake and a jacket gifted. On days like these I experience the lines and edges blurring with the reality of the life I’ve chosen, where neighbor is friend, where volunteers become companions, where kids are helpers and leaders, where housemates and co-workers are family—we are all in active community with one another. We really are a rag tag bunch of unlikely partners—volunteers and kids, neighbors and staff—but we are partners in community nevertheless.
As I’m involved in work where I’m actively stepping towards pain, lament, and brokenness, Advent is the longing in my soul that aches for the becoming of a world such as this—a world of wholeness, of healing, of harmony. It is in days like these where I taste the Messiah, Jesus, who knows the pain of all intimately, and in compassion and incredible power makes all things Well—both in our individual lives and on a collective, societal scale.
Sangiam stopped in at the end of the night and in excitement brought up the idea of a house gift exchange between her family and ours at Long Street.
A gift exchange, neighbor to neighbor. The thought was so delightful that joy escaped me in a boisterous laugh.
The celebration continues.