An Open Heart Through An Open Mouth
inCOMMON Community Development has a unique take on what it means to serve their city. They feed the homeless, but if that was all there was to it, it would not be anything new.
It is how they do it that makes them a force to be noticed. During the holidays, many people suddenly feel the burden of generosity welling up inside. Soup kitchens and food pantries experience an influx of donations, volunteer efforts, and teary-eyed promises to give back some of the bounty that middle class citizens have reaped throughout the year. If the reason for the season was giving, all would be well in November and December, but inCOMMON has a different take on serving the underprivileged in its community.
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This article was featured on The Weekly Grind, Omaha’s young professional radio program, on December 4, 2010 - Listen to the show!
From the top down, the people at inCOMMON have a desire to engage with the homeless and impoverished people of Omaha. There is no room for aloof attitudes on Monday nights or Saturday mornings when they - and partner Neighbors United - serve over 300 meals Omaha’s most needy residents. Donations are not dropped in the back by aloof strangers. Meals are not served by disengaged sympathetic faces. Instead, inCOMMON encourages their volunteers to come hungry. Every meal is bought, cooked, served and shared by a group of people who want more than to simply feed hungry mouths. There is no room for a hands-off approach at the downtown office where meals are served.
What people traditionally picture, the assembly line of a soup kitchen, does not adequately portray the mission of inCOMMON. The same people who work cooking and serving are then expected to serve themselves a plate of food and sit down for a meal with the friends they have served. It is more about building relationships with people than filling their belly.
Homelessness has many causes. Substance abuse, loneliness, depression, and a host of difficult situations may send a person to the streets, but that does not make them a lesser person. inCOMMON has incorporated this philosophy into the way they engage with the community.
Hard-working, middle class citizens; wealthy business owners; college students scraping a living from part-time work—all are no different than the folks they serve. Anyone who has experienced the unpleasant feeling of condescension can relate to the way most homeless people feel day in and day out. One guest during a Monday night dinner articulated the effect of this treatment clearly. He said:
It’s not a pleasant feeling to wake up everyday realizing that the majority of everybody takes pity on you. I mean, sure, I’m in a hard time, but I’m human, too.
It is this philosophy that motivates weekly dinners at inCOMMON. We are all human, and we all have a story. Socioeconomic background and upbringing does not separate one person from another at the level of the heart. For some reason, though, most people, without even knowing it, feel they must stoop to the level of those who have come into hard times. It has been so reinforced, that most people find it harder not to be condescending than to engage with a homeless person as they would with a friend. And the trick is to set aside these preconceptions to extend a hand of friendship.
First time guests at inCOMMON should all have the same experience. Christian and Sonya Gray, the executive directors of inCOMMON Community Development, will openly admit, it is best to have prospective volunteers come and eat several meals with the community before trying their hands at serving.
The mission feels awkward at first. Sitting down to eat a free meal with a group of the homeless makes most people squirm in the beginning. It is not uncommon for people to feel guilty about accepting generosity they do not feel they need. Diners regularly confess these feeling about eating food meant to be served to guests who cannot provide for themselves, but the heart of the mission relies on you and me understanding—really knowing—that these meals are about community and not full bellies.
To learn more about inCOMMON, visit their website, check them out in person (south of the Old Market, just north of the intersection of 13th Street & Williams Street, next door to the Donut Stop), or check out our friends at Silicon Prairie News and their recent post with Christian Gray, inCOMMON looks at the ‘Digital Divide’ in Omaha.
Why do you serve at inCOMMON?