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JUST DESSERT
By Paul Turner

[This article first appeared in Christian Initiation 36 (June/July 1999), p. 8]

Late as usual, Chip decided to drive directly to the soup kitchen from work. The catechumens and candidates were meeting at church to carpool, but Chip knew heíd arrive too late. He was sure he could find the address on his own.

Work at the construction site had been especially hot that day, and Chip regretted how he looked and smelled. However, even though heíd never gone to such a place, he assumed that people at a soup kitchen would accept him for who he was.

The catechumenate group volunteered their services for different activities during the year. They helped at church events; they assisted homebound parishioners; they even picked up trash on the road by the church. On most weeks they spent their time in faith sharing and catechetical formation. But sometimes their "catechesis" took the form of service. Since some members of the parish community volunteered at the downtown soup kitchen once a month, they had invited the catechumens and candidates to join them in Christian service.

As Chip took the exit from the interstate through the central city, he had no idea that his was the only vehicle from the parish heading to the soup kitchen that night. Mercy, the head volunteer from the parish, had taken ill, and she had insisted that the group go only with her. Debra, the catechumenate director, had reluctantly canceled the event earlier in the day. She called everyone and left messages where she could. She even posted a big sign by the church parking lot so anyone who hadnít gotten the word yet would find out. All the catechumens and candidates were disappointed, since they had looked forward to the evening. All were disappointed, that is, except the eager Chip. He never got the word.

Chip spotted the soup kitchen without difficulty, parked his truck, and started toward the building. Looking hopefully around the lot, he could not find any cars he knew. He was a few minutes late (as always) and could not figure out where everyone was. He shrugged his shoulders, entered the building, and looked around some more.

The scene inside was bleak. People standing in line spoke very little. They picked up green plastic trays and bowls and received their food without comment -- a pale soup spotted with vegetable parts, served with crackers and flavored gelatin. The patrons sat on grey folding chairs at broken-down tables. The smell of the people overpowered the smell of the food, and Chip felt oddly relieved that his clothes seemed no different from what others were wearing. Chipís eyes searched the room for any familiar face. None to be found. His confused look could not conceal his discomfort.

"Sign here," a gravelly voice said. A volunteer by the door registered the names of all who came in. Without thinking, Chip signed his name, then joined the line. He picked up a tray, received his meal and sat down. No one greeted him with a friendly smile. No one asked how they could help. No one told him about the food he received. He sat at a table with strangers, the confused among the poor.

"Do you want my dessert?" a voice asked. Chip looked up to see the young woman across from him shoving her gelatin his way. "I canít eat it," she explained, brushing back a strand of hair from her face.

"Thank you," he said, accepting this rare gesture of hospitality.

Chip started thinking about his own behavior at church. He usually walked in and headed straight to his place. He made little effort to greet people, to seek out the stranger, to help folks feel at home, to have a simple human conversation. He had learned a lot about Jesus in the catechumenate group. Now he saw his failure to welcome strangers, yet here a stranger had offered him food. Wait a minute. Hadnít he come here in order to serve?

He returned his tray to the kitchen and heard the phone ring. Turning toward the door he overhead a worker say, "No, nobody from the parish is here. They couldnít serve tonight. Yes, Iím sure." Chip bowed his head to the assembled crowd and walked out the door.

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