I’m not sure why I felt compelled to be a volunteer for Crisis over Christmas, especially when the charity said they were not interested in making use of the listening skills I’d developed over the years as a homeopath. I often stop and chat to people living on the street and I am used to providing short-term sustenance if wanted and, on the odd occasion, funding a bed for the night, so it’s not as if I needed Crisis to aid me in lending a helping hand to the homeless. But nevertheless, I had the time and I wanted the experience, so I signed up as a general volunteer.
And, to be honest, I was unbelievably impressed with the organisation and I defy anyone to not be. The sheer scale of their undertaking is awe inspiring; successfully serving over 200 people, breakfast, lunch and dinner in each of their five London day centres, every day over the Christmas period. Not to mention the laying on of musical entertainment, reparation of garments, legal advice, computers and technical assistance, Samaritans, befriending, dentistry, medical care, massage, hairdressing, Reiki, and more. It is a huge accomplishment, and with the help of 10,000 volunteers Crisis are able to facilitate a positive experience for over 4,000 homeless guests.
So why wasn’t it the uplifting and satisfying experience that I so wanted it to be? The answer, which I have pondered upon for over a week now, has everything to do with an ‘us and them’ way of being which seems to be so deeply engrained in human nature. As impractical and idealistic as it is, I yearned for that hierarchy to be broken down. The fantasy of having no distinction between those that cannot do for themselves and those that are able to do for others was probably the deluded motivation that drove me to want to be a volunteer in the first place.
Picture this: both volunteers and guests in a milieu of serving each other, sitting down to eat with each other, discussing life’s experiences with each other and afterwards having been nourished in more ways than one, scraping leftovers in the bin, side by side, with each other. If life is a series of lessons then just think what gems could be gleaned from such a one level playing field.
Instead, some pretty amazing people donated their whole Christmas recuperative period, away from high profile, highly profitable, and stressful employment to wait on those who do not work, cannot work, and may never work again. The organisers did their best to maintain respect for the guests at all times. One of my tasks was to serve scrambled eggs and mushrooms on breakfast plates and do it quickly. When the eggs became blue and crusty at the bottom of the serving dish I was told not to serve those parts, as ‘I wouldn’t eat it.’ Our commander-in-chief, a woman who in her day job makes financial decisions that affect us all, ate the dregs of those eggs which were set aside to be thrown away because she didn’t want to be taking edible food away from the guests. I have no doubt that that was meant as a humble gesture but the role reversal of exclusivity also maintained the distinction between ‘us and them’.
On the 29th December 2015, I spooned over 200 servings of scrambled eggs and mushrooms, poured out what felt like 8 gallons of fruit juice, plated around 100 mince pies and countless biscuits and after my shift I went home justifiably tired but also a little saddened by the, still gestating, thought that kindness might be a hell of a lot more profound if it was manifested in sharing rather than giving.