Sacred Heart Kitchen: A Time and Place for Miracles
The week between Christmas and New Years is, and has, always been one of my favorite times of year. The madness of Christmas day preparations, regardless of how much you keep to the spirit, can be in a word, “draining.” This special week between the culmination of the year and the leap into the next is my time of reflection… and not merely to read the media’s take on the highs and lows and celebrity events of the past year. It is my time and no one expects anything commercially productive out of me.
I am afforded the time to remember friends who are no longer with us, one very dear friend who passed away on Christmas Day, those people who came into my life and became friends, and some who touched my life without even a proper introduction. There is the annual reaffirmation of in that-which- does-not-kill-us-makes-us- stronger, although Nietzsche failed to mention just how painful it can be at the time and oft times the limitless wounds one can carry. And then of course there was the plethora of miracles I witnessed simply because I am finally learning to experience with my heart, and not merely the other five senses.
One such friendship has translated into a bushel full of miracles on a regular basis. Every other week, on Tuesday he and several others prepare a dinner for those in need at Sacred Heart of Ocean Beach. His team prepares anywhere between 85 and 140 dinners… but I am ahead of myself. First a little historical background.
In the Winter of ’44-’45, while the world was entrenched in war at every turn, focus shifted on a small town in Belgium named Bastogne. The German army charging like a wounded and dying animal struck at the thin defensive line of Allies in the Ardennes Forest. The parents of young boy had already sent him to live in the safer rural area of Belgium, not far from Bastogne. It was by this happenstance, Donald Coulon (or as I know him, Don) lived through the infamous Battle of the Bulge.
Fast-forward to ’77, having married his wife Arlene (they will be married 56 years this year), in the process of raising five children, and leaving a successful career as an engineer, Don opened a small restaurant in Old Town which later moved to Ocean Beach; The Belgian Lion. Actually it was in ’77 when I first met Don. His son, Jim, and I were attending SDSU, and he invited me to share an evening with his family at the restaurant. Aside from my first true experience at dining (you know, taking time to sit and savor the meal) I will never forget Don emerging from the kitchen. I had never seen a chef in the dining room before except in movies. There he was, white chef’s jacket, checkered pants and bandana tied around his neck, wandering from table to table, speaking with the customers, asking them what they liked…at the time it was just about the coolest thing I had ever seen in a restaurant. I would not say I became a regular, but I made it into the Belgian Lion about once or twice a year over the next twenty some odd years. It was while I was on hiatus from OB living in the Cuyamaca Mountains, I heard the Belgian Lion had closed its doors. No more of Don’s duck confit. The end of an era… or so I thought.
The first of the Forums addressing Homelessness Issues in the Summer of ’10, was held at Sacred Heart in the community hall. It was also held immediately following a Tuesday night dinner for the needy. While helping to set up the hall, I noticed an older fellow who appeared to be overseeing the kitchen operations. Wearing a worn chef’s jacket with a gentle hang-dog expression I recognized Don from years earlier. We reintroduced and I found he had been cooking meals for the needy in one capacity or another since the Belgian Lion closed. And the rest as they say is history.
For the past year and a half, I have been fortunate enough to be a part of a very organic operation which serves the community of Ocean Beach by preparing full, wholesome meals. With Don as a maestro somewhere between Von Karjan and Pan, we manage a mystic meal every other Tuesday. Mystic in the sense we never know until the day what we will have to prepare, but it always includes a meat entrée, salad (green and fruit), vegetables, and a starch of either rice, potatoes, or pasta…and whatever else comes our way. No one really knows how it all comes together, it just does. It just may be one of those miracles I was writing about earlier.
It has been working in such close proximity with Don for awhile now, I have been afforded another educational opportunity. He has been teaching me how to rid myself of a really hard shell which had begun encompass my heart; something as simple preparing and serving food for others. The anti-thesis of Gordon Ramsay, Don is a patient man with dry, and often ribald, sense of humor. While he clearly runs the kitchen, it is as a quiet shepherd rather than overbearing task master.
And he is a bit opinionated. A socialist to the core, one of Don’s favorite stories is about a meeting by the late Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme when he visited Ronald Reagan at the White House in the ‘80s. Ronald Reagan asked Olof Palme, the Social Democratic, “Well, what do you believe in? Do you want to abolish the rich?” Palme replied, “No, I want to abolish the poor. Our responsibility is to let everyone have the chance to realize their potential to the fullest.” Don has taken that to heart. It is a contagious attitude and a fine sentiment by which to live.
So what about some of those miracles I was writing about earlier. No burning bushes in the landscape outside the hall, no images of the Virgin Mary in the mashed potatoes, and despite the cacophony voices, no speaking in tongues. As a teacher, I have the opportunity to bring international students and colleagues to work in the kitchen; representing so far, India, China and Japan. The universal response at the end of the evening has been opening of the heart, and disbelief such a humble act could impact so many in such a positive way…a miracle.
We have volunteers who come and go, and others who make a commitment and show up every other Tuesday to wash dishes, mop floors, greet and serve. Wife and Husband team Jan and Pete take care of salad and coffee respectively, and be counted on every other Tuesday. Regardless of short term or long term volunteer service, and the general organized chaos, I have not once heard a discouraging word. In fact, smiles and hard work are the uniform of the day.
And before you think this is just the Catholic Club at work, we have menagerie of backgrounds; Spiritual, Faith-based, Secular, and just plain ol’ OBeacian. Good works simply draw good folk.
Age plays no factor either. Adam is in middle school and he is the manager of the dessert table which runs like a well oiled machine… he is getting ready to make the jump to kitchen duties. Even though it looks like a strong wind could blow her away, Gail is a force of nature. She is taking a little down time recovering from a broken hip. When she is not sweeping up, carrying dishes, or comforting the lonely, she just might trip the light fantastic when we have music….a few more miracles.
There is one woman who comes in quite regularly. The street has aged her in such a way I am sure she looks twenty years older than she. The first time I approached her and asked how she was doing, she flinched and cowered. I learned her name and for a year and a half did nothing more than say hello and ask if she was getting enough to eat…a shy nod was her reply. Last October, I walked by her table and asked how the food was. This time in reply, she stood-up and embraced me and whispered “thank you,” in my ear…and then back to the table, head lowered in shyness…another miracle.
“Thank you,” is the most often heard phrase at dinner time…in a world full of complaints and gimme, gimme, gimme, perhaps another two word miracle in and of itself.
One of our providers in the past has been “Feed America.” Without plugging this organization for donations (I would never stoop that low), let me simply state the people who work there are good people. Feed America has supplied us with low cost, quality bulk food for serving the hungry. And while our source is new, when we have used Feed America they have discounted our bill by a dollar for every paper plate we turn in which those we serve write a message. They speak for themselves and that is why I have included them here…each one a miracle in and of themselves.
So as we all prepare to face the upcoming year, remember, there are miracles each day. They come from us, from the relationships we form, from the acts we do and others do for us. Just remember to look for them and recognize them when they do happen.
Those are my thoughts for the New Year….