It has been a year since the First Lady Michelle Obama arrived at Miriam's Kitchen, the food and social service program housed in the church I pastor. Western Presbyterian is located eight blocks from the White House. Early each morning, our basement wakes up long before the rest of the neighborhood, as the staff and volunteers serve a hot breakfast to over 200 homeless men and women. Then the workers continue bustling into the evening, as they serve dinner. Last March, there was a sparkling newness to the day. The Obamas had just moved into the White House, and the anticipation for change seemed palpable, even on the streets of D.C. Only a small handful of people knew that the First Lady was going to be serving, so when the divider between the kitchen and the dining room rolled up, and Mrs. Obama stood there with her apron, spoon, and knowing smile, you could feel our guests take a deep breath and hold it. A couple months after millions of people had watched the news just to see what kind of gown Mrs. Obama would wear to the Inaugural Ball, this First Lady who embodied so much promise and change, was scooping up the mushroom risotto in the basement of our church.
Of course, transformation isn't easy. It takes time and persistence. In these twelve months the mud of politics, leadership, and change itself has sullied the Obamas. On the national scene, the hope for our country's evolution has been soiled by the daily wear and wrangling of the political process, as change seems to be something for which we long and reject at the same time. We know what is happening with our yearning for something new in our country, but I wondered what had happened in our neighborhood. So I asked Miriam's staff, "In time since Mrs. Obama visited the kitchen, after the reporters left, has there been any lasting impact? Have things been different in the neighborhood since the Obamas moved in?" I knew that the First Family continued their support even when the cameras were turned off. Miriam's received produce from the White House garden, and the President and First Lady gave monetary donations. But had there been lasting change?
"Yes," Sara Gibson, the Director of Development, replied. "Mrs. Obama's visit invited Miriam's into a larger, national conversation on food and nutrition." The First Lady served at the kitchen because of Miriam's commitment to serving healthy food. When a guest comes to Miriam's, it may be the only meal that he or she will receive all day, and the chefs and volunteers commit to making sure that it is a good one. Even in the morning, our guests are greeted with green vegetables. Miriam's works with farmers and our church members glean at the local market for leftover fruits and vegetables that the growers cannot sell the next day. Poor nutrition and poverty often go hand-in-hand in our country, as people on food stamps seek out calorie dense food to feed themselves and their families. Calorie dense foods are often cheaper and more filling, but they don't have the essential nutrition that fruits and vegetables have. This causes a crisis, as many low-income children and adults have diabetes. In all walks of life, food preparation has become something we watch on television and not something we practice ourselves. Miriam's models an alternative to the destructive habits in which we engage. In our corner of D.C., they work with local farmers, qualified chefs, and amazing volunteers in order to provide healthy meals, served with dignity.
"Dignity" brings me to another thing that changed that day. After the meal was served, Mrs. Obama greeted each guest. Those men and women who spent the night before huddled under bridges and in alleyways lined up to shake the First Lady's hand. She graciously took each hand, nodding and listening to each introduction. "That was the biggest thing for us," Gibson said. "It's the change that's stayed with us. You know, there's probably no one who is more invisible in D.C. than a homeless man, and for a moment, our guests were seen." Her words stuck with me, as I walked around the streets. It's true. I've worked with people in poverty for many years, and even so, I've trained myself to avoid the eyes of the homeless when walking down a busy sidewalk and I don't always answer their calls for help. I don't actively ignore anyone else, except for the homeless. And yet, my Christian faith beckons me to look at my neighbors, to love them even as I love myself. That's what First Lady Michelle Obama left us--she took the time to see her neighbors. And often, that simple act is where real change begins.