Service with a sonrisa: April 19, 2013

By Jammie


On Thursday, Bjorn and I did our first service project in Buenos Aires: feeding the hungry and poor at the Basilica of San Jose de Flores, a gorgeous Catholic church in the Flores neighborhood (so beautiful — it’s all warm tones, gold, wood and elaborate paintings with an impossibly high, vaulted, ornate ceiling. Man, the Catholics know how to build a good cathedral.)


The people are fed in an auxiliary building named in honor of Mother Theresa, the Obra Beata Madre Teresa de Calcuta (literally: Blessed Work Mother Theresa of Calcutta), which alone made me feel like I was in the right place to do a service project.  We were shown into the kitchen area (after first being mistaken for delinquents who needed to do community service, of course). There, we were enthusiastically and warmly welcomed by about a dozen older women and men. I immediately liked them. They had the kind of comfortable, spirited camaraderie that comes with years of working together.


They gave us mate (MAH-tay) tea and for half an hour we amiably chatted (somehow, conversation always includes an admission that yes, I do look rather Chinese for a Filipina.) At 11:30 a.m., everyone sprung into action and I realized this team is one well-oiled machine. They set up a production line and ladled out food efficiently and with precision. People stepped up and stepped in where needed. In short order, trays were filled with bowls of polenta and a red meat sauce (it smelled delicious). And it was all done in a sparky, good-natured atmosphere with plenty of smiles and laughs. These were some feisty, funny people (even though I only knew about half of what was said, I could still understand the mood.)

Suddenly, I was up. I had been told before that my role would be to help servir. I grabbed a loaded tray and bravely, if slowly ventured into the dining room, where about 100 people were seated. I’ve seen too many bad rom-coms to know that I should NOT attempt to serve the bowls while balancing the tray on one hand. I decided to stand close to someone seated and let them grab the bowls and hand them out to the table. However, sometimes people wouldn’t notice me. Saying “permiso” (permission) or “perdon” (sorry) didn’t seem quite right, so I settled for calling out a loud, bright, thickly-accented (American) “Hola!” with a cheery smile. It seemed to work.


The people eating could ask for seconds of different things (besides the polenta, they also were served a hearty soup, bread and a drink). They would raise their hands, give you their bowl and state what they wanted. The problem: Several people would do this at the same time and speak in Spanish muy rapido. Seeing as how I had been stumped when other servers would call out “falta” (meaning someone at a table was lacking a bowl; I, however, thought they were saying “falda”/skirt and became paranoid about the state of my dress), I thought it best to slowly retreat back into the kitchen during this phase.


I was quickly apprenticed to the dishwashing team. They washed the dishes by hand as there were no automatic dishwashing machines. I was allowed the task of drying them. Now if I had thought the others volunteers were fast, these people were downright Speed Racers. I understood why after realizing that a second group of people are fed, too.


With the second wave of people flooding the room, food preparation and service routines were briskly repeated. By 1:30 p.m. it was all over. Within the space of two hours, two groups of 100 people (or more) had been fed, given extra helpings, dining room tables wiped, floor swept, the kitchen cleaned (including the floor washed and mopped), dishes washed, dried and put away. We left with cheek kisses and many enthusiastic “Gracias!” “Ciaos!” and  “Besos!” ringing in our ears.


I asked Bjorn in a slightly awed voice, “What just happened?”  As with many of our service projects, I’m surprised by how fast time flies. But even more so this time, I felt like I was emerging from the stupor of a dream (of course, the fact that I woke up during a single-digit morning hour probably contributed to this feeling.) Maybe it was overstimulation from the busy-ness/interacting with large groups of people/doing it all in a foreign language/all of the above, but I felt dazed — in the good/happy way; not in the I’m-lying-on-the-ground-after-tripping-over-a-fire-hydrant way (trust me, it can happen).


One thing I know for sure: I’m looking forward to next week and can’t wait to see this high-spirited, highly-efficient fun bunch again.


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