Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Community Dinner at Agape

“Make sure you have four chairs on the side of each table.”

The BLC Field School had marshaled itself to assist in setting up the gym for the spaghetti dinner.

“Should it be three rows of three tables or four rows of three tables? A 3-6-9 set up or a 3-6-9-12?”

“Let’s go for four rows, better to have too many seats than too few.” With twenty-four seats per set up there was enough room for ninety-six people. “That should be more than enough.”

Volunteers from Whitefish Bay United Methodist Church were hard at work preparing the dinner in the kitchen. Voluminous pots of boiling pasta gave clouds of steam, making a hot day just a little bit hotter. The smell of garlic bread wafted from the ovens causing the stomachs of the BLC Field School volunteers to give off a small growl.

A family of three patiently waited outside the gym, sure to be amongst the first to get a seat. The gym began to fill well before the official start of dinner at 5:30. Small groups of three, four, and lone individuals found their spots around the tables. Their idle chatter joined the whirring of the ceiling fans to fill the gym with echo upon echo. Bits of gossip and talk of the day bounced off the walls making every other word incomprehensible. Only if one paid very close attention could coherent conversations be made out of the din.

The field schoolers filed in and quickly picked up on the visual cues of how the dinner would operate. Grab your tray, grab your plastic utensils, and grab your spot at the table. Set your empty tray in front of you and introduce yourself to your table-mates.

At this table on this particular evening you happen to find Vicki, Joyce, Angie, and Bob. All four are in their late 70’s or early 80’s, all have lived most of their lives in Milwaukee, and all of them have come here from outside the Thurston Woods neighborhood. The conversation begins in a very typical manner: What is your name? Where are you from? Why did you come to this dinner tonight? Are you with the people wearing the t-shirts? The conversation soon moves from generalities to specifics: What do/did you do for a living? How long have you been coming to the Agape Center dinners?

Vicki had been a secretary. Joyce had been a nurse at St. Micheal's. Angie had been a waitress at a bowling alley and then worked in the cafeteria at St. Micheal's. Bob worked for the IRS for many years.

You begin to share the little tid bits of trivia you know about the city. “They called Milwaukee the City of Spires because there are so many churches.” “Nearly one every three blocks it seems.” “Isn’t it true that the brewery workers used to get free beer?” “Oh, yes. I had a friend whose husband worked for the breweries and they would get free beer and free lunch.”

Soon you are no longer strangers but friends with a certain amount of familiarity. “Yes, I too was raised Catholic.” “I visited Holy Hill when I was a child; all I remember is walking of the many flights of stairs to the chapel at the top.” Your new found friends take great interest in the ethnic background of your companion. Soon Joyce tells you that she is trying very hard to think of something interesting to say. “Everything you have said so far has been very interesting.”

The meal begins with military precision. A loud whistle blow pierces your ear announcing quite abruptly that the time for feasting has nearly arrived. But first an introduction by Agape Center director Al and a short dinner prayer. One of the guests has the honor of reading the prayer from a card similar to one placed on every table. Everyone mumbles along, in that distinct way that dinner prayers are vocalized, thanking the Lord for our meal, our friends, our family, and our community.

Finally! The food is brought out: a bowl of spaghetti and meat sauce for each table, a bowl of salad (iceberg lettuce with green beans on top), a bowl of ranch sauce, and bowl of garlic bread. Each bowl gets passed counter clockwise, and each tray is slowly filled. One of your table mates is kind enough to fill your Styrofoam cup with milk. The food is dished out and the conversation continues.

Somehow amidst all the talking the food bowls get passed around, plates are filled, and just as quickly the plates are empty. As soon as the last morsel leaves your plate cake is brought to table for dessert. Just as quickly as the main course your dessert disappears. Perhaps one piece is surreptitiously saved for later.

Suddenly the clanging and scraping of chairs grabs your attention. Your servers are quickly taking down chairs and hanging them up for storage. This is a clear sign that the meal has ended. You want to stay and talk more with your companions, perhaps get a recording for the project. With assurances that they would love to talk more Bob and Angie take their leave. Then Vickie and Joyce must be heading off as well.

There is nothing left for you to do but grab a rag and help clear debris from the tables. Soon the gym retakes its previous form. Two tables set at the front for serving lunch and an open floor for playing games.

The meal ends and so does another successful day of BLC Field School. There is nothing left to do but head for home and reflect on your experiences. You leave the Agape Center feeling just a little bit closer to the people in this community. You no longer have the feeling of a spaceman collecting rocks on the moon, or a scientist peering into a microscope at a strange specimen. You feel like you could really connect with these people, get a good understanding of what their lives have been, and really known what daily life is like for people in this one particular neighborhood in this one particular city.