Essay Contest Third Prize - "Apples, Compassion and God's Sense of Humour"
By: Vivian Ojo
December 1, 2011
I have discovered that there is something painfully beautiful about shaving the skin off apples. Somewhere between the Union and Judiciary square metro stations, I discovered a place with a new interpretation of unity and justice. The DC central kitchen stands as a consistent invitation to pedestrians passing by, to take part in a spiritual revolution. I would soon discover that the gravity of this revolution was incongruous with the dull grey and blue rectangular structure that I encountered, on arrival. This was certainly not the elegant invitation that one would expect from a place that would redefine service, love and dedication for me. There were no frivolous additions. The invitation was simple. “The Whitehouse, God, humanity, chance (or whatever else may have brought me there) cordially invites you to a daily DC dinner entailing three hours of relentlessly shaving the skin off aged yet edible apples. Complete with the guarantee of fatigued hands and the possibility of a moment of spiritual clarity.”
After hearing the task set out for the day, I managed to remain relatively optimistic. Confident that I would soon encounter that moment when you smile internally and congratulate yourself for doing something good for someone else. A somewhat self-righteous satisfaction that never tends to last very long. Such a moment did not come. After the fifth apple the novelty wears off and you begin glaring at the clock more frequently in search of a time when you need not see another apple.
Soon the dubious tendency to slow down and idle when the facilitator is not looking, begins to set in. It was then that I began to question why I was there. Yes, I liked to help people but surely there were other more meaningful things I could do. I had done service projects many times before. I had worked with orphans back in Namibia and in Swaziland too. I had even prepared meals before, yet for some reason I just could not focus on the task at hand. It was in that moment somewhere between the 7th and 12th apple that I realised the difference. DC central kitchen made meals for people in places across the district. People I may never see in places I may have never been. This was the first time I had done such manual service for someone I truly did not know. Even at the orphanages I could put a face to the meals I was preparing. The little children would usually be playing outside. On somedays they were so hungry that they would be conflicted between politeness and hunger, shuffling and hustling about what was supposed to be a single-file line at the kitchen door . At the DC central kitchen, there was no such incentive. All that I saw was an unending supply of apples. Even a finished apple pie was not in sight. Without the clear view of the need or goal, I had become less enthusiastic.
Peter Singer has an apt analogy for this phenomena. He suggest that a man wearing an expensive pair of shoes who sees a child drowning in a pond is likely to jump in (with his shoes) to save the child’s life. Yet he is unlikely to donate even a fraction of the cost of those shoes to a child in another part of the world facing a similarly dire life and death situation, such as famine. Singer's analogy reveals that a visual or immediate encounter with crisis is much easier for human beings to act upon. When we cannot directly relate to the suffering of others we have the tendency to numb ourselves from its reality. In spite of the many flaws and tensions brought about by religion, it is evident that when selflessly interpreted there is a unifying quality within religion that can birth a greater social consciousness and compassion. Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa, amongst many other religious men and women, are two individuals who used their faith in God to master the art of compassion.
When Michael Moore came to Georgetown, along with the many other controversial things that he said, he reminded me of something extremely profound. He talk about the Christian commission in a way that has been largely neglected. He simplified the universal commission of Christendom as; the love of God which necessarily denoted the love of others. When Christ imparted the philanthropic commission of feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, housing the homeless and visiting the sick and imprisoned, he did this in the first person. “When I was hungry you fed me” (Matt 25) Christ unites himself with the 'least of these' or those most in need. Singer proposes many means to bridge the gap between the way we perceive people in proximate need of our help and the way we perceive those who have equally pressing needs but who are physically or even psychologically distant. Yet for me, on October 23rd in DC Central Kitchen after about the 15th apple, the connection was clear. It is the Christ in all of humanity that should compel Christians to meet the needs of strangers. For in Him, we are not strangers but a body united in truth, love and justice. I believe for all faiths the notion is similar. Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and many other religions strive for unity in goodness. It was the realisation of this quintessential higher goal that allowed me to persevere in shaving more apples as a small display of love to humanity, which is the most prized possession of my creator.
By about the 31st apple however, my mind had again began to wonder from the pertinence of the task at hand. Just because I could understood why I was there did not make the 31st apple any more easy to peel. Having exhausted all possible ways to make apple peeling any more dynamic, I was again at the end of my wits. I needed to understand how to persevere in giving. I needed to relearn obedience to the need of others as opposed to obedience to my own desires or preferences. Again, except this time more intentionally, I looked to my faith for edification.
The new testament is really about different acts of service in which Christ and other biblical figures gave of themselves and their knowledge for the well being of others. I began to reflect on the biblical tradition recounted in John 6 that depicts Jesus as having used the two fishes and five loaves of a young boy to feed five thousand people. What a wonderful miracle Christ performed! Yet even more intriguing, was the little boy in the story. Although not often an object of focus, the young boy played a crucial role in the realisation of the miracle. For the first time, I began to think about the faith that he must have had to have handed over his hard earned food to Christ, to multiply it for people he did not know. Had the boy not been there, maybe Christ would have made loaves from dust or maybe the miracle would not have occurred and people would have gone about their day hungry as usual. One could never be sure what may have occurred, but either way the story shows that even the Christ could use something from a young boy. I wondered if the boy really understood the role he was playing in realising one of the earliest examples of charity and social justice.
Bishop Desmond Tutu once said “I don't preach a social gospel; I preach the Gospel, period. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person...Because the good news to a hungry person is bread” Perhaps I was the boy in this scenario and I had been asked to award a little bit of my time, energy and general skills in apple peeling to be a part of the multiplication of food. Monotheistic religions are enthralled by the Messianic belief that charges its believers to wait for a sign, a christ, a Mahdi. The problem arises when we misinterpret this expectant period for a passive one. I believe we are called to be participants in the improvement of world. Perhaps even more than we are called to morally convert one another, we are called to convert injustice to justice, fear to comfort and despair to hope. Perhaps the moral and spiritual conversions are better left to the divine judge, while we focus on the simpler, more evident things that we can do to help, like peeling apples.
It was with this inspiration in mind that I continued relentlessly peeling apple after apple until the clock struck 8pm. Each shaving of apple skin produced by cramped fingers of numb hands, grounded by tired feet was a minute representation of the hope of a meal for a stranger. Our facilitator had told us at the start of our service, that while he wished to give us a break, every moment we spent not peeling apples meant one less shaved apple, which meant a little less apple mash, a little less apple pie and a few more people in lines at Halfway homes and Homeless shelters across DC, who would hear the crushing apology preceding the statement "that's all we have for today"
The experience of peeling tons of apples was rather paradoxically not one of quantity but one of quality. I learnt the importance of a unconditional love and faith, active miracles and collective effort.
In all honesty, I could not in that time have shaved more than 100 apples. In fact, given the time it took to become accustomed to the practice, this assumption may be rather optimistic. We made apple mash for apple pie. Yet from that very kitchen over 4500 full meals including some type of carbohydrate, some form protein, a salad of some sort and maybe an apple pie, are served everyday. In other words, my 70 plus apples in the grand scheme of things were relatively insignificant and are unlikely to have stood in the way of a man and complete starvation. It was instead the combined efforts of the volunteers, some of whom I just met that day, that made my contribution significant. From 5-8pm without even so much as a five minute break, one Sunday evening peoples of different faiths and backgrounds, cooperated in one hope; the hope, the belief ,that our actions could make a difference.
Somewhere around the 50th apple I looked about the kitchen and I saw the men and women on whom I was dependant. For that moment they were my allies in the same mission. If we failed to recognize our dependence on one another we would achieve nothing. I was dependant on the dedicated staff, the dedicated students, the volunteers who had brought the apples, and the volunteers who would come the next day to mash them. In my individual 3 hour psychological journey to do what my faith demanded, I had crossed paths with people who were on their own individual journeys. We had collided in a moment of clarity for the task ahead. This for me, above any other inter-religious dialogues was a moment of pure religion. It was a priceless moment of unity in diversity that can be found in every opportunity to serve, love and give.
As we left the kitchen I found myself smiling internally, except this time not because I had done anything great but because I had been witness the greatness of God. And with it I had encountered more intimately His sense of humour. It is a funny thing, I thought chuckling to myself, that while academics and politicians frantically searched for that moment of inter- religious understanding, it was here all along, logged in the act of scrapping the skin off apples in a kitchen somewhere between justice and unity.