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The church ladies and the loaves and fishes

Fri, Aug 31st, 2007
Posted in Commentary

RUSHFORD - Shakespeare said "Some are born to greatness; others have greatness thrust upon them." Betty Culhane belongs to the second group. The recent flood in Rushford resulted in displaced people, who were also, sooner than later, hungry. As the only church in town not to be flooded, St. Joseph's was asked to provide first shelter, and then food.

Father Pete said, "Of course," and opened the doors. They've been open ever since, serving an average of 2,500 meals a day (depending upon whom you talk to). As of today (Monday, Sept. 3), that's sixteen days of serving meals almost entirely made up of donated food coming from a variety of sources.

Many, many people have provided volunteer labor and donations of all kinds of food. But every ship needs a captain, and, maybe because she lives next door, Betty, a retired teacher, seems to have been thrust into that position. Not that she minds. "It's something we can do," she told me Wednesday morning.

Betty will probably kill me for even mentioning her-she is the opposite of an attention-seeker. But maybe she'll forgive me if I say she has lots of help. Her friend, Delayne, another retired teacher, is at Montini Hall early each morning with Betty, planning the menus for the day. Then they stay for the rest of the long day.

"How early do you get here?" I asked Betty.

"Well, we have to decide what we're going to eat for the day," she said, as if this should be obvious, even to me.

They can't plan far in advance because they never know what ingredients will be donated. And donations are dropped off all the time, often during a meal. Which is how Sunday night, we ended up serving barbecues, with a side of hot dish, with a side of hot dog.

"Was this food made by church ladies?" a man asked me before I scooped turkey noodle hot dish onto his plate.


"Good. Give me a lot."

Smart man. Other "church ladies" serving at Montini these days include Sandy and Diane (my favorite Franciscans), Suzanne, Elaine, and so many others that I hope they'll forgive me for not mentioning everyone. And they are church ladies from all churches, not just Catholic.

And let's not forget about the "church men," church administrator David U'Ren, who often seems to be on the phone searching for donations, and Father Pete who moves from table to table, talking with people for hours each day. A few brave men have even served as volunteers in the kitchen with the ladies.

It's truly a phenomenon, what's going on at Montini Hall these days, and people are fond of invoking the Bible story of the loaves and the fishes. I make it a practice not to debate anything Biblical with anyone, but I don't mind saying that I'm convinced when Jesus performed that particular miracle, feeding crowds of people with very little food, there were church ladies present.

"I don't have it as bad as some"

There are a number of frequently heard phrases in Rushford these days, but the one I've heard most is, "Well, I don't have it as bad as some." Everyone has a story, many of them harrowing-stories of cold water rising in the dark as walls fell in and household belongings floated away. I've heard more than one person say a variation of, "I really thought this was it: I thought we were going to die."

But everyone, no matter how tragic their story, ends with saying, "Well, I don't have it as bad as some." Even those who you think couldn't possibly think anyone had it worse than them, they will say, "Well, at least we're alive."

Asking for help

"What can I do? I want to do something." It seems so natural for people in this area to want to help. National Guard members and other volunteers commented how the people here didn't simply wait for help-they immediately pitched in and began doing what needed to be done. Let's face it-we love to help each other.

But the flip side of this coin-asking for help-is the hardest thing many people will have to do. "I love to help," one woman told me. "But when I'm the one who needs help-I can't stand that. It's really hard for me to ask for help."

This crisis has shown what we already knew-if your neighbors and friends find out you need help, they'll be there. But we're also being reminded of something we might not think about often-the need to learn how to receive with grace, to ask for and accept help when you need it the most.

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