I am on book deadline right now, so here is something from the archives, written on April 26, 2009:
Yesterday he spoke to 7,000 people. Today I shook his hand.
I’ve worked in a local soup kitchen on and off for around fifteen years, four of those, full time. It is a beautiful place, with a peaceful garden and jam packed, multi-faith altar. The food is good and the place is a refuge for many, guest and worker alike.
This morning, Martin’s became a refuge for the Dalai Lama.
The kitchen prepared for weeks. I stepped in to help just a few days ago, in a serendipitous gap in my travel schedule, and this morning, a miracle of timing was orchestrated. While volunteers ushered out the guests from the morning meal, others of us moved in to rearrange the courtyard with enough tables to fit the 150 or so guests that would be able to dine with His Holiness. I scrubbed the bathrooms, then washed my hands thoroughly in time to corral the waiters who would take plates of food to the tables. We didn’t really have time to meet, as word came that His Holiness had arrived early.
When he walked in, all were silent. All bowed. Black-suited entourage moving forward, I tried to back out of the way. Of course, this meant he walked right up to me and shook my hand. We looked into each other’s eyes, each hand clasped between the other’s and I said “Good morning,” expecting that he would perhaps make some small talk as he had with the man he’d just greeted. But no. We just stared and smiled, some recognition passing between us: me in my black tee shirt and teal apron and he in his burgundy and saffron robes. There was a dot of water beneath his right eye. He moved on to greet others and see the garden. Something in me responded to his presence and I felt tears come to my eyes.
He spoke to us about the fact that each of us depends upon the other, and that there is no need to feel badly for that, that dignity and the human spirit is in each of us, and we need to remember this. He spoke of his mother, who would feed anyone in need who came to the house. He said that everyone can be our parent, our brother, our sister… He spoke of how important it is to have the chance to serve, and how he never has the chance to serve with his own hands. Martin’s gave him that chance. He was gifted with an apron, died to match his robes, and he served up pasta, salad and bread for the waiting tables. When I approached to get a plate for the table I was serving, he looked into my eyes again, and gave a deep, hearty laugh. I beamed at him. At the tables, the plates were passed from hand to hand, so everyone present had a chance to serve another.
The table he sat at – filled with homeless men, to whom he remarked that he is also homeless – roared with laughter at quips he made. Not only does he radiate Being, the Dalai Lama has a great laugh.
He spoke again after the meal, touching on many subjects, and saying that all religions are important in what they offer, that each of us must find the religion that is true for us, but that in the human community, all are needed. He told us that Christian friends of his say he is a good Christian… except for Desmond Tutu who says he is the Mischievous Dalai Lama. And whether he will come back a fifteenth time? It is a mystery. He did, however, want to come back to Martin’s. I do not blame him.
He told us not to worry too much, to be happy, and that any place can be our home.
Then the swirl began. His hour was up and it was on to the next place. The Secret Service moved into place, entourage swimming around the Dalai Lama. I was trying to help keep people away from the doors where he would exit. Once again, I was also trying to stay out of the way of the dark suited men and women with their ear pieces and solid stances. Once again, before he turned toward the door that would take him into the main dining room, through the kitchen, and out back to the waiting car, he turned, held out an arm, and shook my hand.
The blessing was Martin’s itself, as usual, where there is a saying oft repeated, “Well, it’s just another miracle at Martin’s.” Today was that, for all who came and were fed and, I got the impression, especially for His Holiness himself.
Those who need love, may they find love. Those who need refuge, may they find refuge. Those who need peace, may they find peace. Those who need a home, may they look within their hearts and open wide. May we all become homes for each other.