It’s not a Science – It’s an Art!

As an intern with the Project on Lived Theology, I am serving five days a week in the kitchen at the Haven, a non-profit day shelter located in downtown Charlottesville, VA. The other morning, David Selzak, our Kitchen Manager, demonstrated to us newcomers how to cook a large pot of grits. We weren’t given any exact measurements – we just watched David empty the contents from the box of grits into a hot, white cloud emerging from a large pot. As he stirred, David reminded us, “It’s not a science – it’s an ART!” Apparently, we would be able to “feel” with a spoon whether we had achieved the correct proportions of butter, water, salt, and grits.

Now, there certainly are a few tasks for which exact measurements are given, such as what temperature food must reach upon being reheated, or how many iodine tablets to use for dishwashing, for example. Most of the time, however, what should be done is not as explicitly stated. In any given minute I’m making dozens of snap judgements and bending backwards to meet the situation at hand. Most of the time, I’m “feeling” right from wrong, good from bad.

If there were a volunteer handbook, I think it might describe a world in which our doors open punctually at 7:30 and close promptly at 9, in which no more than one scoop of sugar may be allotted to every guest, and in which no special requests may be serviced (such as the request to make scrambled eggs when the grill is churning out fried eggs). None of these rules, however, are so severe, nor should they be in my opinion.

Such strict enforcement is not proportionate to the demands of our little operation. We serve breakfast to 55 to 90 guests every morning, and therefore we do not have to manage the kitchen like a military. Were we to serve hundreds of guests every morning, I imagine we would have to tighten the ropes in order to maintain order as well as prolong resources, but this is not the case. While 55 to 90 guests certainly makes for fast-paced work, this number still leaves us some breathing room.  I’m able to learn the guests’ names, for example, and sometimes I get to know their stories. I’m able to perceive guests as individuals rather than units on an excel sheet, and because of this, I am often compelled to make extra eggs after we’ve turned the grill off, or go to the back and chop of fruit for someone who’s arrived too late for breakfast. This spontaneity might push back against formal rules, but I believe they make way for the trust and compassion we want to cultivate in our communities.

As I consider more the art of dialogue in service and community engagement, I turn to Martin Buber. Paul Mendes-Florh explains that Buber’s “ethical principles…function heuristically: they illuminate the path whose exact contours and direction we must survey through ‘dialogue’ that is, in a spontaneous, undogmatic response to the calling of every situation.”1 As I understand it, life, work, and service – like that pot of grits – is undogmatic: a bit improvised, but with an idea (a feeling!) of what’s good.

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1. Paul Mendes-Flohr. “Introduction”. In A Land of Two Peoples; Martin Buber on Jews and Arabs, p. 20.