Happy Thanksgiving! The Great Methodist Kitchen Coup of 2004
July 9, 2004
Greetings from the parsonage! I’m thrilled to be writing to you from my new desk, in my new abode, in the lovely rural suburbs beneath the Catskill Mountains. The only creature in the house happier than me is the dog. Finally, she has her own back yard. I know how she feels.
After living in NYC for 15 years, I do not know what to do with all this space. I just walk around, wandering from empty room to empty room, wondering how many of my old Greenwich Village hovels would fit into this little Cape Cod mansion I now call “home”. I have an office on the second floor—that’s right, I have “floors” now—and I sit quietly behind my desk at night and listen to the crickets and think about the church and pray.
Things sure are interesting here in Kingston. I’ve been spending my days in the soup kitchen; it’s an exciting place to hang out. During the first afternoon, just like Jesus, I wept. I’m not sure what came over me, but I had to keep turning away to compose myself. I’m hoping no one saw me fighting tears; it was very hard to talk to people without being overwhelmed by a mixture of compassion, rage and sorrow. Some are clearly in trouble and others are so broken down they have a hard time looking up. There are lots of elderly folks and too many young mothers with small children. And while there are a few angry souls, the majority seem timid and shamed.
There were only nine folks at church on my first Sunday. Of course, if you count my friend Bruce, who helped with the move up here, you have ten and the pastor (oh my goodness, that’s me!) makes eleven—an attendance figure with room for improvement. Much to my surprise, on Monday afternoon, seventy-nine people lined up in the church hallway to eat lunch. There’s a gymnasium in the basement and a big, old kitchen, and folks line up in the hallway leading to the gym and wait for food to hit the serving line. Nine in church and seventy-nine in the soup kitchen, and they don’t even say grace before the meal is served.
That wasn’t the biggest shock of the week. I found an old key ring with a wide range of keys, so I’ve been walking around this massive church building, matching keys to doors, unlocking mysteries and new territory. Will it be the lady or the tiger? And unfortunately—or fortunately, really, depending on how you look at it—a mysterious little room in the back of the church contains a mountain of donated food. I know that sounds like an exaggeration, but believe me when I tell you that it looks as though someone has been tossing canned goods and boxes of pasta and all the recommended, non-perishable items on the Boy Scout list right into an old Sunday School room and then shutting the door. And they’ve been doing it for years.
Gathered under a fading picture of Noah and his ark, cans of green beans and pork and beans, boxes of ziti and elbow macaroni, cans of fruit cocktail and peaches in light syrup, carrots and beets, cranberry sauce and dolphin-safe tuna rest in knee deep mounds across the landscape, building to a pile nearly shoulder high in the south-east corner of the room. Some of the cans are expired, but lots of the donations are still fine. So every day after lunch, when the place clears out, and the church gets quiet, I wade through the lot, checking dates, separating the good cans from the bad; and I think about Jesus separating the goats from the sheep. And I pack boxes and bags with a healthy, balanced assortment fit for any table and create a little flyer inviting folks to church—11 o’clock on Sunday morning! All are welcome! And I stuff the flyer into each of the boxes and all of the bags and load them on the kitchen cart with wheels, and I wheel that cart right down the middle of Clinton Avenue, giving a big “Yahoo” and a bag of food to all the souls I meet. I’m not just any crazy, white woman—I’m the new Methodist pastor. Here’s a bag of food! Come see us on Sunday morning!
It’s been a good way to meet folks. And it’s good exercise. And there is that whole thing about the least among us. There is that.
With much love, Darlene
July 14, 2004
I almost called you yesterday. I called my District Superintendent, but he was on vacation. The fill-in guy was nice enough, and he prayed with me and did all the things you’d expect a fill-in DS to do, but he wasn’t the miracle I was hoping for. And I’m still a bit flummoxed.
Flummoxed is such a great word. I don’t think we use it enough. Perhaps that’s a blessing. Still I’m going to make a concerted effort to ease it into the daily lexicon. Flummoxed. And I was a bit by the spelling. I had to double check, and up popped Merriam’s online definition: baffled, confused, puzzled, stumped, foxed, at sea, mystified and bamboozled—a word that says it all. That’s what I am.
You may recall from my last letter, I had a grand time checking all those canned goods and filling all those boxes and bags and wheeling that kitchen cart full of groceries down Clinton Avenue. I gave away groceries every day last week. By Wednesday afternoon, I had a small parade of kids following me around. It’s been the most fun I’ve had in years—not to mention the happy folks getting free groceries. Half of them promise to be in church on Sunday morning!
Unfortunately, when I got to church yesterday, I found a padlock on the door leading to Canned Good’s Mountain. Oh, and Larry the Soup Kitchen Guy wants my head on a platter. I guess I stepped on his toes. And I am genuinely sorry about that and quickly realizing how complicated this job will be. But honestly, I may have wandered into Canned Good’s Hell, but he is the one who created it. And I’m beginning to wonder just who this crazy guy who throws canned goods into a back room and then screams at me thinks he is!
Well, you can certainly see the therapeutic effects of writing to you—I am quickly moving from flummoxed to Irish. He caught me off guard, that’s all. I wasn’t thinking about why there was a room full of canned goods; I was having too much fun using the room full of canned goods. And the room looked so neglected, it never occurred to me that someone might actually feel territorial about it. I don’t know why it took him a week, but yesterday he confronted me after lunch. There were two volunteers with him, lingering in the kitchen, and I knew they were lingering to watch the show. I braced myself and tried to pray.
“I’m gonna get rid of you”, he screamed and stepped toward me. I backed up and looked around for an exit. “I’m gonna tell the trustees to send your ass back to seminary! You’re outta here!”
I have to confess, I was, amazingly enough, speechless. It’s not so much that I didn’t know what to say as where to start, but ultimately, and I hate to admit this—I was too afraid to speak. I handled far worse when I was a bartender, but then I had a treasure trove of thunderbolts to hurl and a bar full of regulars to back me up. But Pastor Kelley didn’t have a clear word in her head. I wasn’t just afraid of Larry the Soup Kitchen Guy—I was afraid that if I did respond—it wouldn’t be very pastoral.
And he did go on, screaming about how things were gonna be from now on, and who was runnin’ the show, but I didn’t take it in. I just backed up and started praying; I was so surprised and disappointed to be cowering after only a week on the job.
And those two lingering volunteers were definitely Larry the Kitchen Guy’s minions. They laughed at me, and it stung. And I knew in my gut—it’s humiliation we have to watch out for. Isn’t it pride that cometh before a fall? Humiliation is the fuel of vengeance and bitterness and sin. God save me from shame and ego, and help me find a way through this worthy of the role I’ve taken on. Do no harm. Do all the good you can. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. I was caught off guard, knocked off balance and left flummoxed and speechless. So, I cowered in the soup kitchen and let a misguided crazy man scream at me. Then I cried on the way home. That’s when I almost called you.
But today I regrouped. I went to the nursing home and found three of the folks on the shut-in list, and then I went back to the parsonage and finished unpacking because this is my new home. And tomorrow, I’m definitely going back to the soup kitchen because I am the new pastor. Ugh.
Obviously, I need to go and pray some more and have a big cup of tea with lots of honey. I know it’s a cliché’, but I can honestly say—I wish you were here.
With much love, Darlene
July 18, 2004
Our church secretary gave me your message. Thank you so much for your wisdom and kind words. Prepared to take your sage advice, I walked into the soup kitchen with my head held high only to discover my nemesis absent from the scene. Danny, the kid who washes the pots and pans, told me that Larry the Soup Kitchen Guy was taking a little three-day holiday. Flummoxed once more, I wondered how Larry planned to hold the reigns of power and take a vacation simultaneously.
I’ll admit I was also relieved. At the very least his absence bought me some time—time I could use making friends and learning the routine, time to let things smooth over before I had to face him again. And definitely time to pray, check the Book of Discipline and call a few meetings.
But then something extraordinary happened. A large donation arrived, and I watched Larry the Soup Kitchen Guy’s minion volunteers unload racks of ribs off the truck.
“Wow! You guys serve ribs for lunch at a soup kitchen! That’s great!”
“No, Pastor Kelley”, Danny replied, “The ribs go to Larry’s storage unit.”
Needless to say, Danny and I took a ride over to Half Moon Cold Storage to take a look at Larry’s “unit”. It was not a happy sight.
First of all—and this goes back to the room full of canned goods and the filthy kitchen—Larry the Soup Kitchen Guy’s stewardship sucks. There were hunks of meat in that frozen storage locker so old they may have sailed on the Half Moon. And there was a lot of it, more than they are using, shelves full of hams and chickens and ribs and roasts. And growing up from the freezer floor like a stalagmite—reminiscent of the beloved mound of canned goods in that little back room—a little mountain of meat.
The next day, we went back to Half Moon Cold Storage with the old van and a couple of volunteers to salvage all the meat we could use or give away. It was like Christmas in July. We hauled loads of hams and chickens and roasts back to the soup kitchen and layered them out on the big tables, bellowing out the warning: Use this as soon as it’s defrosted!
Arms full of meat, folks filled their bags and their boxes, their strollers and their backpacks, and then quickly phoned their friends and neighbors and Aunt Marie and Uncle Billy and dear old Cousin Sue. There was excitement in the air. Soon people started pulling up to the curb, calling out: Is this the place with the free meat? And as long as it lasted, I kept saying, “Yes”. Perhaps it was The Great Methodist Meat Give-Away.
I have to admit, I had a great time. It was festive like a party. Seems people are pretty happy when you are handing them free steaks. Score one for the new pastor.
But our friend, Larry the Soup Kitchen Guy, isn’t looking too good. Screaming at the new pastor is one thing, but having a meat locker full of freezer-burned ribs is another. At best, it was bad planning. And it turns out, the church has been paying 75 bucks a month for that bad planning, and to store Larry’s frostbitten meat, but not anymore.
God bless the little old ladies of the SPR Committee : Dottie and Delores and Joy and Bea and Muriel. They inspected the kitchen and shuddered at the dirt and the roaches and sighed and shook their heads at the mountain of canned goods in that little back room, and then they begged me to run the soup kitchen. And it was over.
We waited for Larry on the curb this morning—the brave women of the SPR, huddled together in the doorway of the church, clutching their cell phones, at the ready to dial 911—and I simply stepped up to him as he stepped up on our sidewalk and said, “Give me your keys, please. All of them. Your services are no longer needed.” And I tried to look righteous. And he smiled, kinda. But he handed me the keys and got back into his car and drove away.
It was quiet and anti-climatic, a bloodless transfer of power. I almost felt bad for him. But what do you expect when you threaten a Methodist pastor in the kitchen of her own church and then take off for three days? And now I am the pastor and the director of the soup kitchen. Dear God, thank you and help me!
In many ways, it couldn’t have worked out better if I’d planned it. But I didn’t. Seemingly Machiavellian, it was an accidental coup, the Great Accidental Methodist Kitchen Coup and Meat Give-Away of 2004. As my father used to say, “Life turns on a dime.” And things stay interesting here in Kingston.
With much love, Darlene