Some years ago, just out of high school, I volunteered at the local soup kitchen. It was my first time doing something like that. I was nervous, and a little proud of myself, being all righteous and loving and going to help these poor people who were so much worse off than me. No, I did not realize how condescending my attitude was.
Not at first, anyway.
Right as I showed up, still getting my bearings back in the back serving area when this older salty man handed me a tray. I still remember what was on it: toast, an orange, eggs, and oatmeal.
I was taken aback. I think I visibly recoiled. I wasn’t one of those people who needed a free breakfast! I was there to help those people! I didn’t need any charity, and I certainly didn’t want to be mistaken for someone who did.
“Oh no,” I stammered. “I’m not here to eat. I’ve already eaten. I’m here to serve.”
“Well,” he said guffly, “you may be here to serve, but first you’ll eat.” And he shoved the tray at me, and I mutely took it, and sat down with other people eating, which consisted of some people who were there to serve, others in need, but all of us sat together, and ate together. And whether this was a breakfast I would have chosen for myself or not, hungry or not, I was very clearly expected to eat this breakfast.
At the time, I thought this was because the gruff old man wanted me to have to eat what I was serving and expecting others to eat gratefully. In the business world, we talk about “eating our own dogfood.” So when I bowed my head and said a silent prayer, I did thank Heavenly Father for His bounties and the blessing of being able to offer this food to me and others.
Since then, I have realized the deeper and more important lesson. How the “protection” of being on the side of the cafeteria line that is giving the help, safely superior and better off than those on the receiving side. I am not so sure that it is always “better to give than to receive”, but I am now aware of how unhelpful that mental and physical separation is when I am wanting to help. But since then, I realized how harmful the attitude of being so superior to someone that I am helping really is. It creates a difficult separation with the person being helped, and it also limits the help that I need as well.
I thought about this experience when I listened to Elder Holland’s talk at Conference and heard this passage:
Isn’t that why this compassionate ruler asks, “Are we not all beggars?”11 Don’t we all cry out for help and hope and answers to prayers? Don’t we all beg for forgiveness for mistakes we have made and troubles we have caused? Don’t we all implore that grace will compensate for our weaknesses, that mercy will triumph over justice at least in our case? Little wonder that King Benjamin says we obtain a remission of our sins by pleading to God, who compassionately responds, but we retain a remission of our sins by compassionately responding to the poor who plead to us
There is not one of us, and certainly not myself, who is not poor in some way. I am grateful for what I have received that has sustained me and provided me life, and that life abundantly. I sometimes feel poor in the ability to help people, I feel poor in Christlike love, which seems so plentiful in others and lacking in myself. I’ve been reading an excellent book by Wendy Ulrich, The Temple Experience. She has a passage from that book that gives me comfort:
Some of us feel we have a… disadvantage at love, one we can never fully recoup—and perhaps that is true. I suspect the God of justice and mercy applauds rather than condemns those who come to loving late in life, and who fight to love appropriately despite the odds against their ever “competing” with those to whom love comes more naturally. We can still learn to… love, even if we will not do it as skillfully or optimistically as others. And then we can congratulate ourselves as we would congratulate a winner in the Special Olympics, not condemn ourselves for not performing like a world-class athlete. The all-encompassing importance of love in the gospel of Christ can feel like a huge condemnation when we feel love-impaired. But perhaps this too is one of the burdens which Christ’s gentle yoke can help us carry. (page 236)
She also points out that when the resurrected Lord visits His disciples off the Sea of Tiberias (John 21), He first helps them catch a load of fish, then helps them cook it, and they all eat together. It’s only after they have eaten their fill that the Savior commands them, “Feed my sheep.” First, they ate. Then they served.