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All Kinds of Wilderness

           Wilderness. A place where there are no houses and no maps. A place of beauty and tests of courage. A place where your guide may be someone entirely different from what you expected.
           Another kind of wilderness. This one in Santa Barbara, a soup kitchen where I worked for four years, housed in my church’s parish hall. We made the soup out of discarded vegetables given to us by the produce manager of a local Vons grocery store. On this salvage, we fed up to 250 people a day.
           In the kitchen we had only one rule: if you were obnoxious you had to go outside. We fed people with mental illness, prostitutes, the working poor, alcoholics, men and women on fixed incomes, and homeless teenagers on their way through town. Everyone was welcome.
           Once a lovely woman dressed in a Kelly green cardigan and slacks, a “presentable” person, came to eat lunch. She started talking to a volunteer from the Latter Day Saints about how she couldn’t eat because someone was pointing at her head. Jackie, our volunteer, said to her very gently, “If you sit down for awhile, I’ll watch out for anyone pointing at your head. I’ll be right here, rinsing trays.”
           The woman sat down and began to eat. She ate for a few minutes. Then she reached down to pick up something off the floor. When she straightened up, she said, “Someone pointed at my head while I was leaning over. Someone pointed at my head.”
           Jackie walked over to her and touched her very carefully on the arm and said, “I’ll make sure they don’t do that again."
           The woman smiled. Then she said, “I’m not always like this.”
           Jackie replied, “I know.”
           In the kitchen I saw a man barely able to concentrate because of mental illness play The Moonlight Sonata on the piano. I watched another man throw himself between two men to prevent a fight. We had so many offers to help from the men and women we fed we couldn’t use them all.
           “Thank you for letting me help,” an elderly man said to me. “I need to feel useful.”
           Wilderness. A different kind. In the Community Kitchen we had no maps and different guides. It was a place of great chaos and questions.  In that kitchen, the moment when heaven met earth had more immediacy. We were nearer to the brink. In the kitchen I learned about the bedrock truths of the gospel: why Jesus sat down at the table with “sinners,” tax collectors, prostitutes, “nuisances and nobodies.”  I learned things about faith in the kitchen I couldn’t learn anywhere else.
           In this Advent season, let us all name our wilderness. Where must we go, where is the place we are called that has no maps, and different guides? Where is the place that reveals new truths, new awakenings?
           In the wilderness John cries, “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight.”

- Nora Gallagher, guest essayist, Journey With Jesus for December 3, 2007. (Click on date for link.)