There are few things that bring people together like laughter over a delicious meal. It has been a cornerstone of our life together: nourishing our bodies and our communal spirit. Cooking them together is another cornerstone. A little over a year ago, I joined the kitchen staff as a head cook. It is truly a joy to work with younger, and often newer, community members as we prepare meals for our friends and family.
As with any job, there was a lot to learn. I feel like I am still learning, but I now have a good grasp on food safety and sanitation. Many protocols we had in place were sufficient for the new challenge of Covid-19, but it soon became apparent that some things had to change.
At the beginning of the shelter-in-place order, we were all discombobulated. There was new information almost on a daily basis. “In an abundance of caution” was a phrase we saw over and over again; events were being canceled, and restaurants, schools, and businesses were temporarily closed to the public. The details about how long the virus could live on surfaces was alarming. The way that the virus was being transmitted was a mystery. Our kitchen had to make adjustments, and fast!
The biggest change came first – we could no longer eat together in shared dining areas in our house. The kitchen still prepared all the meals for the community, but now those meals had to be eaten in our small living spaces with only our families or, for our single members, alone.
At first, we tried serving buffet style, like we usually did, but with the addition of having only one or two people serving the food instead of many hands touching the same utensils. This worked ok, but the congestion in the dining room was counter to guidelines for indoor gatherings.
Also, community members were accustomed to coming into the kitchen to gather staple items such as flour, fruit, rice, vegetables, etc. but it was hard to ensure that each person was adhering to hand washing, social distancing and other food handling protocols.
Many changes happened rapidly. We stopped serving breakfast. Instead, we set out pre-packaged breakfast items once a week for gathering. We had servers for lunch and dinner, but the amounts of people were still excessive and, to underscore the importance, we were starting to see our first cases of Covid-19 in our shared home.
Soon after the first cases, we went to packaging all of our meals in containers. We stopped allowing anyone besides staff to enter the kitchen. Anyone with confirmed positive tests (or any symptoms) went immediately into quarantine while their “quarantine buddy” brought them all of their meals, took out their garbage, did their laundry, etc. according to protocols.
We stopped serving lunch and distributed lunch items once a week. We stocked a sizable fridge in the dining room with staple items that could be accessed throughout the day and established a “shopping hour” when people could come by and ask for items from the kitchen.
Everyone was adjusting well and supporting these changes – for the most part.
One afternoon while we were preparing dinner, a fellow community member came into the kitchen through the main swinging doors, grabbed something off the shelf, and abruptly left. As the head cook, it made me feel slighted, and I found myself angry.
When I feel angry, my habit is to ask the anger where it is coming from. So that evening, I wrote an email to the offending party, which I didn’t intend to send, in order to get my feelings out. I sent it to a friend instead and she helped me process my inordinate response.
She reminded me that we are all under an undue amount of anxiety and pressure. The high levels of stress and the low levels of perceived control are a toxic mix just waiting for the slightest provocation to erupt. A few dashes of fear and/or frustration are just the things to activate the explosion of anger brewing just under the surface. Recognizing the mutuality of these feelings helped me to respond with grace to the “kitchen bandit.”
So, what should I say now? That people should go on doing what they want since we’re not under law but under grace? That the pressures of pandemic life, the many micro-losses we all are suffering justify lawless behavior? By no means.
The new rules for Covid safety that we have implemented are intended for the benefit of each individual, and the community as a whole. But following the rules is not a prerequisite for love and belonging. And following the rules doesn’t earn you love and belonging. Living in an intentional community means that we see each other at our best and worst, and everything in between. As Dorothy Day reminds us, “It is never the brothers right next to us, but the brothers in the abstract that are easy to love.”
But we try. And we forgive. Today it was the “kitchen bandit,” tomorrow it will be me – standing in the need of prayer. We need to do everything we can to get through this pandemic safely, but after it is all done, my sincere hope is that we will be able to look back and say that even in the worst of times, we treated each other with love and compassion. Covid will pass, but the relationships will remain. So we will continue to act not only with “an abundance of caution,” but with an abundance of compassion, care, and grace.
Debbie Baumgartner has been a math teacher for decades and loves to make connections between math and the gospel. She recently joined the kitchen staff at JPUSA and enjoys making meals for the community. She has also been actively involved in the internship program and organizing events big and small. She and her husband David, along with their two almost adult children, practice hospitality, connect with neighbors, and create art and music whenever possible. She loves reading, watching movies with her family, talking to friends and living in community. You can read more of her writing at The Tree Gardeners of Uptown.