Matthew works with Tony's Place, one of Houston’s largest LGBTQ+ Homeless organizations, to help homeless queer youth by providing them with free, home-cooked meals and revitalizes clothing donations by reinventing donated clothing for teens. Matthew will use the $3,000 to provide over 1,000 free meals by the end of 2019 and to buy supplies to upgrade the clothing.Updates from Matthew
What Brandon’s Middle Finger Taught Me About Service
Every Saturday morning, my mom and I wake up at seven to finish off our six-hour culinary adventure. We started by marinating the meat, cutting the tomatoes, and preparing the dough. Then, we cook the pasta, boil the beans, and fry the empanadas. Eventually, we assemble that week’s dishes and complain about how heavy they are while we lug everything to her gray SUV. Despite being a part of our weekly ritual, I still plug in ‘1621 McGowen Street’ into our navigation system because I don’t want to risk taking a wrong turn and arriving at Tony’s Place1
A half hour later, we arrive. We are greeted by friendly smiles, pride flags, and a rickety, old table that is, inexplicably, still standing. A line of hungry teens forms while we all pray that the table doesn’t fall apart under the weight of our trays and that there will be enough food for everyone. One by one, a different hungry patron eagerly tells me what they would like to eat and I make them a plate. Almost everyone is extremely appreciative of our cooking. My favorite part of every week is when a different person smiles at me and tell me, “y’all’s cooking is the highlight of my week,”‘thank you so much for doing this,” “I appreciate it bro,” and, my personal favorite, “can I have seconds?”
However, at first, Brandon, a young man in a faded, muddy blue shirt, had a wildly different reaction to our cooking. Unlike the others, he had a smirk of hostility on his face. I looked at him and smiled. “Hey, what can I get you?” He looked me in the eyes and chuckled. “I’ll take some of the spaghetti.”
While I reached for my Nylon Spaghetti Server, out of the corner of my eye, I saw him take his hands out of his pockets and lift his middle finger at me. By the time I turned back around, his middle finger descended. His fists were clenched.
“Can I have some of the beans too?”
I said nothing. I turned to pick up a bowl. Not surprisingly, a certain perky finger deemed its preliminary debut to be inadequate so it made another appearance. I couldn’t decide how to feel. I felt like I should feel hurt because I wasn’t making as big of a difference as I thought I was. I felt like I should feel angry because of his disrespect, especially after spending hours in the kitchen to prepare him a meal. However, after handing him the bowl, I laughed to myself and moved on to help the next person in line.
Feeling offended by his middle finger would impact someone’s expectation that they will receive praise for doing good. All too often, we serve because we want to feel good about ourselves. Under this mentality, his attitude toward us would directly affect our willingness to help. Although feeling good about serving is not at all a bad thing, when we serve, we shouldn’t feel like a ‘thank you’ is a necessary, final step when we help others. Service is about more than short-term gratification. Service is not about us and our feelings. More importantly, service is not helping someone because they need it and you feel guilty, it’s about helping someone because you care about them as people. Service has much more to do with grace and care than with necessity.
I am not denying that Brandon was being rude. However, despite being disrespectful, flicking me off didn’t make him any less hungry. Brandon was still asking for help and I was still there to serve. He, like all people, still deserves a nice meal. If he didn’t, far too many of us who take a paper bowl of pasta and beans for granted wouldn’t either. More than anything, we must show compassion for Brandon. I, for one, will never be able to adequately empathize with the problems he faces. He had thousands of reasons to be bitter and resentful toward me. If I were in his shoes, I wouldn’t feel very happy about some private school kid and his mom serving me food out of pity. Showing compassion and understanding don’t justify his actions. Nonetheless, we should try to understand the headspace of others. Empathizing with the experiences of others prevents us from being discouraged while serving. We cannot let the discouraging attitudes of a few diminish our ability to help the multitudes of others who need it. Additionally, relentlessly showing compassion demonstrates that you are putting the needs of the less fortunate above your own. In turn, showing compassion prevents you from letting your pride get in the way of helping others.
Thus, I am glad that I didn’t let one measly finger get in the way of serving at Tony’s Place. The more Saturdays my mom and I spent in the kitchen and the more car trips we took to Tony’s Place, the more my relationship with Brandon improved. More importantly, our continued service showed that we didn’t bring food out of pity but out of care, compassion, and grace. Although hostility was initially interwoven into our relationship, he now greets me with a smile and runs to help us bring in our trays. Over time, our conversations have stopped just being about food and more about us as people. Ironically enough, Brandon became one of my closest friends at Tony’s Place. This relationship could have never happened if I didn’t choose serving people like him over my own pride.
Tony’s Place is a drop-in center in center focusing on LGBT+ youth up to 25 years of age who are unstably housed, couch surfing or experiencing homelessness.