Only in NYC can a priest spend her morning working out the answer to the question, "Under what circumstances can Glen Beck come volunteer at our homeless feeding program?"
Mr. Beck's assistant did indeed call Epiphany out of the blue with a request to have him and several friends from his 9/12 "tea-party-esque" group (her words, not mine) come volunteer a week from today. "He just wants to roll up his sleeves and help people" said his assistant, Tiffany, repeatedly. "Have you heard of Glenn Beck?" she asked. "Of course," I answered. "Well, many people in New York, you know, are liberal and haven't heard of him." "Of course we know who Glenn Beck is. We watch Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart." She laughed bitterly. "That's a good one."
"Why us?" I asked incredulously. Tiffany explained that she liked the way we treated our guests with "dignity", seating them for meals rather than treating them like people at a "regular soup kitchen." Agreed. We do treat our guests with dignity. Which is why it was hard to picture how Glenn Beck could join us without their dignity being violated and turned into a nameless backdrop.
But there's no such thing as bad publicity, right? And we need volunteers, and to raise awareness of homlessness and hunger, and frankly, Rachel Maddow and Keith Olberman have never shown any interest in volunteering at our program, so I tried to keep an open mind. This was not aimed at the Fox News audience, but for the future, unspecified "charitable" work that Glenn Beck will be doing after he leaves that network. I told Tiffany that many of our guests did not like to have their pictures taken. "Oh, Glenn will get them to talk to him. He's just so likeable!"
It wasn't hard to imagine the reception Glen Beck would get from most of our weekly volunteers, though, whose politics lean pretty far to the left. If he did come, it would be a real test of the hospitality of Christians. We welcome everyone to eat on Wednesdays--you can be homless, you can be poor, you can be mentally ill--and there are probably even a few people who are taking advantage of a free dinner. (No doubt Glen Beck would suss them out instantly.) And if we welcome all, then we need that to mean all--even people with whom we disagree.
A flurry of phone calls to the rector and director of the homeless feeding program and we had a plan. Mr. Beck could come with his volunteers, but because we have a slew of volunteers at the moment because it's the end of the semester and local students are fulfilling their community service requirements, it needed to be in late June or July, not in May. And to protect our guests' privacy, no video cameras in the room where people were being fed. He could bring a still camera to take pictures of himself and the other volunteers. We could accomodate him that much from our general policy regarding cameras in the dining room, which is just that they're forbidden. After dinner, he could do interviews on film with any of the volunteers or others who wanted to be filmed. But we didn't want his presence to inhibit anyone from eating--since that's our primary mission.
I called Tiffany, pretty sure that this wasn't going to work for her--but if his real aim was to help, as she claimed, it was a good offer. This way he would be helpful. Showing up next Wednesday with cameras would not be helpful.
I never even got to the "no camera" part--by the time I said it needed to be later in June, her answer was "That's not going to work. We need this for the June 7th launch." "What happens on June 7th?" A pause. "Oh. Well, you'll hear all about it because it's going to be really big. It's the launch of Glenn's new charitable and political initiative. And now you're really going to miss out. It's very disappointing." And with that, she was gone. So much for unspecified future projects.
So Mr. Beck, in case you ever read this, know that you are welcome to volunteer at our homeless feeding program--just like everyone else. We'd love to have you. We'd love to have you come to our fundraising auction on June 10 and help us raise money to feed the 120 souls who come through our doors every Wednesday. We'd even love you to come here with a camera and do a story on homelessness and hunger. But our feeding program isn't just a backdrop to make you look good. If you really want to "roll up your sleeves" and make a difference, come on by, and you will be welcome. And over time, that might make you look good.