Kathryn Stroud —
“We’re not here to save the world.”
The words are simple and definitely not unfamiliar to me. But the context I received them in changed everything I had been thinking. They came from Nina Pickerrell, a woman who started Bayview Mission in San Francisco. Bayview provides food, diapers, toiletries, and more to individuals in need in the community. Each week, the organization hands out food that will service over a thousand people. All of this becomes even more extraordinary when you add in the fact that the entire organization operates out of Nina’s garage.
And Bayview was the first stop on our Alternative Spring Break trip to San Francisco. The group of us – fourteen students and two staff and faculty members – spent a week doing service that was focused on the homeless and food insecure. We would wake up at eight each morning, eat breakfast, and make our way towards our service site. We worked at Bayview Mission and we worked at other sites too, including the San Francisco Food Bank, a giant warehouse that sorts food for all of the food pantries in the San Francisco area, the Salvation Army, and St. Mary’s Community Center, an organization that aids homeless seniors in the Oakland community by providing housing and food, as well as beneficial programs to the community.
At each site, we were given a tour and a history of the organization. Two of my favorite organizations to work for were Bayview Mission and St. Mary’s Community Center. Probably because the organizations were started to meet a simple need. As Nina stated, she did not start Bayview to eradicate poverty in the world, she started it because there were hungry people in her community who needed food. St. Mary’s was started because there were people with no homes that needed a bed to sleep on.
It is easy to get frustrated with service. If you’ve ever volunteered and thought critically about what your volunteering did, you know the feeling. Food kitchens hand out food to those in need each day, but the food isn’t always enough and the food kitchen isn’t doing anything to help the individual not need to go to the food kitchen again. They are simply handing out food.
I am not saying that I think food kitchens are enablers, nor am I suggesting that food kitchens are somehow bad things. Food kitchens are ridiculously helpful. But the point of doing service today is to make it obsolete tomorrow. That should be the final aim of it, at least.
And maybe that’s why Nina developed the clear mindset she has. This frustrating, circular logic of service – that if you attempt to meet a need right now, like hunger, then you aren’t attempting to eradicate it or lessen its existence, but if you don’t meet the need right now, people will starve – can take a toll. Especially with someone like Nina, who has to see tragic things each week.
In the twelve hours we spent at Bayview, we saw dozens of little kids, between the ages of one and three, walking with their mothers. Some of them were smiling, while others were too shy to look up. In San Francisco, one in four kids are food insecure, which means they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. At Bayview, you take what you can carry. Most people bring big carts or bags. One man, who walked with a limp, brought a big trash bag that he slid across the ground. When he got towards the end of the line, he had to stop taking food because he couldn’t carry anymore. He had to say no to food he needed because he wasn’t capable of carrying it home.
The week was filled with hundreds of stories that could break anyone’s heart. There was a man who struggled to find a dollar to buy a sandwich at McDonalds. There were homeless men and women under every underpass in the city, living in a congregation. And so on and so on.
It was one of the most incredible weeks of my life. I enjoyed every minute of it, from sleeping on air mattresses to nightly conversations to working at service sites.
I would not call myself religious or spiritual by any means, but I do believe in the power of service. I believe that we should help people in whatever capacity is necessary. Maybe that means handing out food to the hungry or providing a bed for the homeless. You aren’t attempting to save people, you’re attempting to help them.
Because we aren’t here to save the world. We’re here to help people.
* Photos Courtesy of Kathryn Stroud