The Hunger & The Iris.

I wonder what God makes of the iris, the part of the human eye that controls how much light and information we perceive and process. It seems to me that the entire world enters our existence through this small part of our eye. What a pressure it must be under.

For instance, my dark brown iris would like to see more of the world; road after road; landscape after landscape; not one step after the other; more like everything at once.

Maybe God is a little more tempered or He would just go for it. Yet He never sends you until you’re ready. And He doesn’t send you everywhere at once. Conundrum.

The Argyll Arms.

I started Sunday in a seemingly British fashion and went to the pub for breakfast. Alas, this is no ordinary pub as The Argyll Arms near Oxford Circus has been around since the 1800s. As a listed building, it will probably be around for many more years.

Inside, I found mahogany partitions, chandeliers, lilies adorning the bar and a very richly decorated and carved ceiling that I could have looked at for hours.

Apparently, there is also a dining room on the 1st floor. Closed until 12 on a Sunday, I’ll need to go back some other time, at a later time, and marvel at it.

The Argyll Arms

The Argyll Arms_Dining room

The Argyll Arms_Ceiling

 

The Soup Kitchen Sanctuary.

Some line up as early as six o’clock in the morning no matter what time of the year it is, even though the doors open at same time every week and there is always more than enough food to be had. Still, they come – little old ladies with grocery carts, middle aged men. Black, white, Asian, Latino, Christian, Muslim, non-religious, they come rain or shine to The Father’s Heart Ministries to get unlimited breakfast and bags of groceries and produce, lining up under the old neon cross that reads “Jesus Saves”. That cross, like another, more famous New York City beacon, welcomes the tired and the poor, those that many in the city might consider “wretched refuse”. Yet, every week a multitude of “guests” wait to enter the church’s old sanctuary to join the feast prepared for them. But those guests are not the only ones who come to Father’s Heart each week. Hundreds of volunteers from all over New York City and even the country vie for spots to serve that there is a waitlist to give up a Saturday morning to work in the soup kitchen or food pantry.

I was one of volunteers. For 15 years (with maybe a few breaks in between), until I moved to Washington DC, I would rise bleary-eyed to spend my Saturday morning assembling and giving out bags of groceries or waiting tables or helping out with the GED class. In the spirit of full disclosure, my parents founded Father’s Heart and continue to run it. One might say that this essay is unfairly biased, that it is “advocacy”. But if that same “one” knows anything about pastors’ or ministries’ kids, you’d also know that we’re often the biggest critics of our parents’ work. So when I say that this is the most authentic experience of Christianity I’ve ever had, you know it’s true. For the past 17 years, nearly every Saturday morning, Father’s Heart has opened its doors to serve the Alphabet City neighbourhood of Manhattan (and beyond) through a soup kitchen, food pantry, GED, ESL, and computer classes, and legal services. In an hours and a half, over 700 people are served an all-you-can-eat breakfast in the church’s sanctuary, where instead of pews you find tables and chairs prepared for their guests.

Every Saturday morning, Pastor Chuck (my dad) provides an orientation for volunteers by describing this scenario: you find a $100 bill on the ground and it is dirty and crumpled and torn in places. Yet despite its appearance, it’s value never diminishes. Like those $100 bills, the guests who arrive each week are image bearers of God and therefore immensely and infinitely valuable. And must be treated by every volunteer as such, To paraphrase the words of Jesus, when you feed the hungry, when you care for the “least” of his brothers or sisters, you are serving Christ himself.

For those who volunteer regularly, who week after week welcome these guests, a curious thing starts to happen in that soup kitchen sanctuary. As each guest is treated with dignity, grace, and the Father’s Heart “unconditionals” – love, acceptance, commitment, and forgiveness – the often patronizing narrative of “helping those less fortunate” shifts. Volunteers, many of whom are among the most fortunate in New York City in terms of education and opportunities, begin to see their own spiritual poverty and need of the unconditionals.

Despite the lack of pews and ornate decor, that sanctuary filled with tables, chairs, eggs, and coffee is a holy place. It is a temple where the Divine meets its creation and a holy drama is enacted. Theologian Michael Horton said at the 2012 Mockingbird conference, “when you live in a world of fear and scarcity, you demand things of the people around you. The God we need is a liberal* God, a God of abundance. The kingdom of heaven is a feast.” Christians look forward to the day when all will be made right in the world, when heaven will once again come down to earth. Then sisters and brothers from every tribe and nation will join together in a feast, the “marriage supper of the Lamb”. Each Saturday, volunteers and guests alike get a taste of that meal. As Jesus is incarnated in the guests, when we feed even the least among us, likewise Jesus is incarnated in the volunteers.

Through preparing and serving meals, through giving out groceries, through offering prayer, counsel, and services, each volunteer is the hands, feet, and face of Christ to the guests. Just as Jesus laid aside his glory and honour to serve humanity, volunteers are given the rare opportunity to serve in a world that prefers to cater to the “greatest” among us. And just as God prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies, so every volunteer is given the ministry of preparing a table in the presence of the poverty, injustice, fear, and marginalization that beset our guests. It is no small wonder why there is a waiting list to serve.

Under the neon cross that proclaims “Jesus Saves”, guest and volunteer are equal in the eyes of God. Each Saturday they are invited to partake in a holy meal and foretaste of heaven. “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb. These are the true words of God.” (Revelation 19:9)

*Used in the sense of generosity, not political ideology.

(This article is) Written by Juliet Vidral. Juliet is The Wheelhouse Review’s Founder and Executive Editor. Juliet also contributes to Sojourners, where she writes pop-culture-ridden posts about faith. But if you don’t have a long attention span, just follow her on Twitter.

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**I volunteered at the Father’s Heart Ministries in New York from September 2016 to February 2017.

The slaves we do not see.

I am riding the bus to see my friend in Virginia on a Wednesday evening. I look outside the window, from the safety of my seat, and see towns, supermarkets, and houses disappear in the night. The bus keeps driving and will arrive at its destination in an hour and a half; my friend will be waiting to pick me up. We will drive to her apartment in a beautiful and rustic two-floor American country house, go to sleep, wake up and sip our coffee in the morning. On Sunday, I will get on the same bus and return to New York and to the coziness of a warm bed in a welcoming and very friendly apartment.

Other people who are in transport at this very moment are not as lucky. They travel against their will, beaten, drugged, afraid and shocked, to a destination that they don’t know. Their papers and all of their belongings will be taken away from them. They will be locked in a dark and small room; chained to their bed; drugged and beaten again, until all form of human opposition, resistance and self-esteem is destroyed.

What follows is abuse after abuse; rape after rape; day after day; sometimes year after year, until their body breaks down and they break down with it and die. The babies born into this world, because life still appears, are sold into the market for beggars, child labour, child sex or organ harvesting.

This is the world of human trafficking or human slavery, the third most lucrative trade in the world after arm dealing and drug trafficking, according to the organization Segura. Slavery generates $150 billion for traffickers each year; ranging between 21-36 million, the number of slaves in the world is today the highest it has ever been. Nearly 1 in 3 detected victims of slavery is a child. There are many branches to human slavery; most often these include prostitution, child sex, pornography, organ harvesting, forced labour and servitude.

The supply markets are typically in the East and range from India and Thailand, to the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Russia; the Western world is also a supplier to this trade. The demand is global.

It is confounding that human trafficking has a place in our world today. Our time is largely characterised by the freedom to pursue one’s dreams and goals, economic development, access to technology and connectivity. However, human trafficking paradoxically exists in the shadow, in an organized and coordinated way. As unthinkable as it sounds, people are being trafficked in New York this very moment, in places that are right under our nose.

I have tried to wrap my head around what drives human trafficking. Fundamentally, I think it is the perception that human beings are disposable and perishable goods; it is the belief that they may be objectified and commoditized for instant gratification and profit; it is the lack of understanding of the uniqueness, fragility and sacredness of the human soul.

It is very difficult to summarize human trafficking, find a solution for it, erase it off the face of the earth and in this case wrap up with a suitable call to action. However, this is what I believe we can individually do to make a collective difference and put a dent in it.

Awareness of human trafficking is the first and most important step, as many times we cannot see what happens in the shadow and do not know what goes on behind the shiny windows we innocently pass by every day; reflection on what drives human trafficking and the traumas that it creates is the second; given the gut-wrenching impact that it has when we reflect on it, the suitable course of action is perhaps best directed by the parts of us that are most stirred by it.

If the injustice stirs you, petition the local government to tighten up the legislation, prosecute traffickers and raid places known as trafficking hubs. If the fact that it destroys lives bothers you, seek out the NGOs that fight human trafficking and understand the type of help they need to fight it harder.

If this is the first time human trafficking has reached you, the CNN is currently running the Freedom Project. A source of awareness and information on human trafficking, its many facets, survivors and the people who fight it.

(Delivered as 3rd speech at Toastmasters, New York, February 2017)

How Virtual Reality can melt your heart.

The Tenement Museum, 97 Orchard Street 

I ‘spoke’ to a Greek immigrant who moved to New York in 1913 at the weekend. Her name was Victoria Confino and I ‘met’ her on one of the tours organized at the Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street on the Lower East Side.

This was one of the first tenement settlements established in New York at the start of the 20th century, allowing immigrant families who had just arrived in the city the residential stepping stone they needed to get on their feet before moving on or moving up into their new American lives.

97 Orchard Street currently serves the city of New York as a museum, where visitors curious about the history of the city, immigration, the Lower East Site and the role it played in the American melting pot of the 19th and 20th centuries can uncover some of the families who lived there; the businesses that flourished in the area; the standard of life and the amenities; the cultural differences between immigrants’ home countries and the New World; the conflict between their perception of the American Dream as perceived from afar and the everyday harsh realities and anxieties of actually immigrating and living in the US, in particular New York.

Victoria Confino 

In the tour I attended, an actress impersonated 20th century immigrant Victoria Confino and welcomed visitors inside her family’s apartment. Her whole attire, demeanor and talk was tuned to that of the real-life character, a 14-year-old Jewish girl who had moved from Greece with her family to escape her brother being enlisted in the Great War (World War I, at the time).

She now lived in the tenement at 97 Orchard Street; worked as a seamstress in her father’s business sowing aprons; slept on the kitchen floor in her family’s apartment; went to kindergarten as she arrived in the US at the age of 11 to pick up English; said her father would allow her not to marry at 15 and wait a little more before he chose a husband for her, although she still didn’t know what to make of ‘the modern women’ of New York who were choosing their boyfriends and husbands ‘on romantic love’; thought Orchard Street was safe, although Allen Street, one block West, was dangerous at night because of the women who worked there.

Between two worlds

I learned the above from the actress playing ‘Victoria’, listening to her perched on a chair in ‘her family’s apartment’, asking the actress / real-life immigrant question after question about her life.

I had signed up for a museum tour and stepped back in time, my heart leaping and warming at the thought that I had the opportunity of ‘speaking’ to someone from another time, culture, and country, who had all of a sudden become ‘available’ for an interaction and so many things to reveal and stories to tell.

For twenty minutes, I existed in a world between reality, alternative reality and a precursor of virtual reality; a 2D and a 3D set altogether; past and present in the same picture, no longer separated by the boundaries of time and space.

While this wasn’t a Virtual Reality (VR) experience and there was no Oculus Rift to immerse me in a new dimension, the visit got me thinking again about the potential of actual VR to bring different and distant cultures, realms, times, and worlds to life. Educate, foster empathy and understanding towards that which is not directly connected or related to us; preserve the past; support knowledge and learning, so that we don’t forget who we are and where we come from.

In the realm of branding, VR is a way of enhancing the brand experience and immersing consumers in an extension of it. In the realm of culture and history, VR is a way of bringing the past to life as if it happened only yesterday and create a memorable, mind-blowing and powerful experience. It is an opportunity for every institution in the world that deals with culture, heritage and history (e.g. museums, world-heritage sites, etc.) to multi-dimensionalize their impact, interactivity, span, and work and for consumers to be blown away.

To experience something of the sort, visit Petra through Google Cardboard.

The food you grow on never leaves your system.

I grew up on a garden full of vegetables my grandmother looked after in the country, toast, butter and homemade strawberry and cherry jam, aubergine salad, chicken soup, meatball soup, tripe soup, polenta, fried pork and scrambled eggs, apple pies, a flurry of lamb and pork dishes that my family made for Easter and Christmas and my grandfather’s red wine, which fermented in wooden barrels every autumn.

I gave up traditional Romanian food as I grew up and started dieting as a teenager, moved to school in the big city and aimed to become a model, travelled abroad and experienced different cuisines, and tried to change to a raw vegan lifestyle altogether.

However, it’s impossible to resist my mother’s cooking every time I go home. On the one hand because of nostalgia, on the other because, true to every Romanian and Latin cook for that matter, my mother takes the task of feeding me very seriously. Saying ‘no’ to an extra few servings is never an option.

And no matter how hard I try to fight it when I am abroad, the thought that a nearby restaurant may be serving the food that I grew up on stirs some sort of hereditary cellular memories that I simply need to live again.

I visited Staten Island at the weekend and went to Enoteca Maria, a restaurant where different ‘grandmas’ the world over cook for New Yorkers who are looking for an authentic, homemade culinary experience.

The restaurant is owned and run by Joe Scaravella. I met him as soon as I went in and got a seat at the bar. “A very interesting seat”, regulars told me later in the evening, the sort from where you can see everything that is happening and still have your privacy; exactly to my liking.

The place is very chatty and familiar and I talked sporadically with Joe throughout the evening, telling him how I had come to find out about his restaurant, how Romanians make wine and he telling me the simple philosophy of his place.

The restaurant started with nine Italian ‘grandmas’ who cooked “the food that their mothers had cooked for them when they were children”. Now ‘grandmas’ from other regions and countries cook at ‘Enoteca Maria’ and customers love it. The restaurant was full and I watched Joe take more than a dozen calls for bookings throughout the evening.

The ‘grandma’ of the evening was a Turkish woman called Fatima. I didn’t opt for any of her dishes. Instead, I chose the grilled octopus with a side of vegetables and a couple of glasses of Pinot Grigio. Dessert was a mouth-watering coffee ice cream dipped in espresso.

Later in the evening, two regular customers came by. Their names were Judith and Gareth and they were on their way back from the march that took place in New York at the weekend. It was perhaps the most genuine conversation I have ever had in a restaurant, proof of the fact that food breaks down barriers of culture, background and class, helps people connect, communicate and have a meaningful and authentic interaction. Does this mean the way of understanding one another goes also through our stomachs?

More on Enoteca Maria at the following links:

Website: EnotecaMaria.com

Instagram: Enoteca Maria

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