BY ELAINE KLAASSEN
We are social beings, we long to be with others, don’t we?
I suddenly had the desire to mingle in gatherings of people, to talk to people randomly and for no particular reason. I think I got the idea to do this after my trip to California last July when old, dear friends bought me a first class ticket on the Amtrak Empire Builder, with sleeper compartment and dining car meals. At every meal on the train, passengers are seated until all tables have four people at them. You converse with whoever chance bestows upon you. I met a few people with whom I shared intellectual resonance (ideas), which was great, but mostly I sat back, breathed in and out, and absorbed people’s “vibes.” It warmed my heart. So, to continue in this vein, and to provide myself a nice format for talking with strangers, I decided to attend some of the many free community meals and fundraiser dinners put on by churches in South Minneapolis. I also included on my itinerary a class with a free breakfast. Anyone can do this at any time. There’s a lot going on. Because I was writing an article, I had to identify myself. But YOU don’t.
The atmosphere at the three free meals I attended was relaxed and peaceful. “Whew, God loves me, I can be myself.” The food was good. Nobody rushed to greet me as the obvious stranger in the midst. Sitting at round tables, long rows of tables or with a plate in my lap, people shared the difficulties of life on a personal level—they talked about their lack of work, their desire for education, their unexpected pregnancies, their student loan debt, their challenges taking care of pets, for example. And I heard a lot of mutual encouragement.
Sometimes people told entertaining stories, like the women talking about going to the movies in Hopkins. When they saw “Before Midnight,” people were walking out, they speculated, because the film had no explosions or special effects; it was just talking. A woman who had seen Johnny Cash’s life story six times said people were dancing in the aisles.
I learned that people don’t go to free meals necessarily because they have no food in their house—they’re not necessarily destitute. They are sometimes just tired of eating alone. One retired couple said they went from one church dinner to another because they were lonely and had no family. AND they don’t cook. They told me of a great dinner in Carver County and in Golden Valley, an organic dinner at All Saints Episcopal Church, at Longfellow and 31st, and a dinner at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist where guests are seated and served, and I don’t know where else. They said they always make a contribution if donations are accepted.
(I was amazed to learn that the man’s father had taught in the same southern Minnesota small town high school with my father, “a million years ago,” as my friend Rhoda always says. The man was in 12th grade when I was in 4th. We went to the same church. He said he had just recently come across an old report card, from 1954, with my dad’s signature on it. SW (Small World).)
Another reason people go to the free meals is to maintain social connections. I spoke with two women and a man who are good friends and often arrange to meet up at church meals around town, especially at Holy Rosary, or Mt. Olive Lutheran, where I met them. The man said he started going to free church meals when he was out of work, but now although working again goes to meet up with his friends. The women, who are sisters, had each raised seven children. One of them has 22 grandchildren. They also said they don’t cook. Not anymore. Been there, done that.
(The guy said he has copies of Southside Pride from as far back as 10 years, as well as other community papers such as The Reader (now defunct) and Pulse (now defunct). He hopes to make photo copies someday of his favorite articles, but laughed when he said he hadn’t started yet.)
In some churches the majority of people attending are church members, like at Living Spirit United Methodist Church. According to their pastor, Donna Dempewolfe, it’s a ministry they really like. There’s no specific purpose, except to be open and extend themselves to the community.
I went to a few fundraisers as well and found a lot of random conversation there, too. When churches advertise their fundraiser meals, they often say, “Come meet your neighbors,” as a side benefit to getting a great meal.
The cool thing for me about fundraiser dinners is that not only is the food good if not spectacular, it’s a lot more economical than eating in a restaurant. If you want to take somebody out to eat and don’t want to break your bank, take them to St. Albert’s Fish Dinner, or to St. James’ Spare Rib and Sauerkraut Dinner, or to Minnehaha United Church of Christ’s Wild Rice Enchilada Dinner, etc. Nobody will care if you are strangers. And you can either socialize with people or huddle off in a corner by yourself. The expression “kill two birds with one stone” comes to mind, but out of respect for birds and the sacredness of life, I’d prefer another expression. Suggestions welcome.
The dedication of the people putting on fundraiser meals, as well as free meals, is inspiring. At the Living Spirit Annual BBQ, on a dismal, rainy afternoon in July, one volunteer said he’d been there since 8 o’clock in the morning and would probably finish around 8 p.m. I’m sure he wasn’t the only one. It’s a big deal.
Holy Name is very enthusiastic about putting on its Fall Festival. A volunteer said a friend of hers is a member of a different church where people simply each contribute a certain amount and then don’t have to have a fundraiser. That would be my choice. But she said, no, Catholics love a party. That was evident, with the marginally chaotic vitality and good humor I encountered there.
So far, I’ve been talking about conflict-free conversation, common ground conversation. I only went to one gathering where the explicit purpose was communication (and conflict resolution). It was a “Healthy Communication” workshop, at Minnehaha United Methodist, about doing your best not to put people on the defensive. I counted it within the scope of my project because a free breakfast went with it. There, a woman said to me the most astonishing thing, which I will never forget: She said she and her husband always work through all their conflicts until they get to the heart of it, even if it takes two weeks. She said they are both willing to do that. You don’t hear THAT very often.
I missed St. Albert’s Roast Beef Dinner; Andrew Riverside Presbyterian’s spaghetti dinner and movie night; the Baked Potato dinner at Faith Evangelical Lutheran; Temple of Aaron’s fundraiser with Anderson Cooper; St. James Spare Rib and Sauerkraut Dinner and a lot more. I’ll never know what conversations, what connections, didn’t happen.
Talking with people is how information, correct or not, travels in the culture. It’s how you link your island to the mainland, how a commonality develops. I once read “Thus Spake Zarathustra” by Friedrich Nietzche (I know) and in there somewhere he says something like, it’s better to say something to another person, no matter how plain and humble, than no word at all. That’s why when you pass someone painting a fence you might say to them, “You’re painting the fence.” It’s better to sound simple-minded and show your good will and your aliveness than not. Better to acknowledge another person’s existence than not.
Interestingly, Southside Pride just learned of a brown bag lunch that has been going on every Monday at Pillsbury House since summer. It started as an attempt to keep the Arts on Chicago group together, but, according to Mike Hoyt at Pillsbury House, it has expanded from there. The writeup on their website describing their desire to have this kind of regular conversational meeting sounded so much like what I was thinking in pursuing my “conversations.” It must be the zeitgeist. People want to connect. They wrote about the idea as “a low pressure invitation to simply hang out and eat lunch with some of your artist/community peers. We can talk about art, we can talk about gardens, we can talk about the weather, we can talk about food, we can talk about the coolest thing you did over the weekend, we can not talk but rather tune into the natural rhythms of the neighborhood, whatever.”