On April 20, 2013, a group of women came together for a shared meal. But this was no ordinary meal, this was a breakfast put together by a group of women who saw a need, held in honor of a group of women who, for varying reasons, did not have a home to call their own.
The credit for this breakfast goes to Bianca Broos, a woman who teaches a life skills class at The Rose and Manna Home, spending time with women living on the fringes of society and are labeled, marked, and misunderstood. To say she holds a special place in her heart for needy women and their children is an understatement.
“I went to my computer and posted on my face book that I would like to organize an event with “you – my fb friends” for disenfranchised women,” Bianca shared about the event. “I set a date and invited them into my home. It was a risk, it’s crazy really. I am not an organization, not a church…. My goal was that we share our lives. Much is said about serving and giving in our society, but we are meant to share our lives. This is to give fully, to contribute of ourselves and to meet the other as friend and human – not as needy and in need.”
Bianca’s vision quickly snowballed into a movement, bringing together volunteers and countless donations to contribute to this special breakfast. And in the end, all walked away from this experience much fuller than they were when they walked in.
One of the volunteers, Becky Ennis, shared a first-person account of this experience. Will Bucquoy, a Sonoma County, took the photos that accompany her story.
May we all be inspired by this story of selfless giving.
The Common Table
By Becky Ennis
On Saturday morning, a group of women woke to rise and serve another group of women whom they had never met. While I thought that I was on the side of serving, it turns out that I was part of the group of women being served. How these lines blurred between serving and being served, I don’t know. But what it demonstrated was that we are all simultaneously beautiful, we are all strong, and we are fragile; that our spirit and desire to be recognized, counted, and have purpose are the common denominators in being women, in being human.
Our human-ness. Our longing. Our story. This is what brought us all to the table that morning – The Common Table.
My first duty was to chauffer. At 7 a.m., I went out with a co-worker, a woman who volunteered her time and two vehicles to round up women and bring them to First Congregational United Church of Christ for breakfast. I didn’t know what to expect. How many women? How would I know who to talk to and where to go? I was given an address. That’s all.
When I arrived at Samuel Jones Community Center, there was a large group of people milling around outside on a foggy morning. My first thought was, “Wow, I’m so glad that this many people can fit into this shelter!” This thought was immediately followed by a sad regretful thought, “I can’t believe there are this many people”. I wished they all could come to breakfast, and I wanted to have the means to bring them.
I parked the mini-van and was immediately greeted by a woman wearing something like a name badge around her neck. But it appeared to be her own creation since it carried a picture of the Virgin Mary and was stuffed with smaller papers (and no name). She asked if I was here to take her to breakfast. I thought Alleluia! Answer to my prayer about what I need to do when I get to the shelter – do nothing. They will come to you!
Ten women piled into our two cars and off we went. The conversations we had were normal. I mention this because I thought they might somehow be contrived or different; these women are homeless, after all. So, what do homeless women talk about? They talk about how to shop at Oliver’s to buy healthy food. They complain about McDonald’s power as a company to sell to our children a lifestyle of fatty foods and addictions to French fries. They discuss where they’re going for the rest of the day. And in between each change in topic, a short thank you for picking us up today, thank you for giving us a ride to breakfast, thank you for having a clean car.
Simple authentic conversation.
Arriving at the church, we are greeted by more women – both the serving and to-be-served kind. In fact, as women gathered at the nametag table, it was difficult to tell who was part of each group. Tables were decorated with tablecloths, purple and green flowers, and ribbon. Beads and twine were placed in a bowl with scissors at every couple of chairs. Women who arrived earlier were already carefully organizing, designing, and stringing beads for necklaces and bracelets. It was colorful, light, and airy – a gorgeous spring morning. We served our ladies fresh fruit and yogurt with our seemingly never-ending egg dishes!
The process prior to that morning was to collect donations for breakfast items and bring/cook it all ourselves. Most of us posted the purpose of our breakfast and our needs for the event to Facebook and we were met with an outpouring of food, personal toiletries, and money from friends and family. Donations were coming from everywhere – even outside of Sonoma County. I received a check for $50 from Michigan! It was really a blessing to see so many people respond just because they were asked. Another woman invited friends to her house the evening before to have an egg dish making party! The women couldn’t attend Saturday morning, but they were like a commercial kitchen rolling out eggs and ham with artichokes and cheese!
Women sat around the table, ate, and talked with each other as they made their bracelets and necklaces. Some of their children were playing outside on the playground. Music played in the background. As the official program began, Rebecca lit a candle and spoke about the sanctity and safety of this place we came to share with each other. We were all secure in knowing that our words would remain here and not leave the room. The candle was a reminder of sacred space. Gina Williams, one of the servers, led us in our first song “Lean on Me”. As Gina began singing, one woman sitting across from me remarked that this was “set up”. She came for a meal and now was crying her way through the morning because she didn’t realize there was going to be a performance for her. After our song, we took a long moment of mindful meditation to feel the earth beneath our feet and our connection to it. Again, I felt in that instant I had arrived to nurture my soul. I came to share with others but was receiving so much.
We wanted to have someone at the breakfast who could give first-hand accounts of a walk her in shoes – a story that maybe would give some hope to other women around the table. One woman, Penny, remarked on how she knew some of the women, and that she understood the bonds that are created in being homeless. She expressed how she felt like she had sisters, women who would be there through it all – and she did. Penny came to the breakfast as a “graduate” of the homeless hierarchy. She shared her story after breakfast. She was one of the women who used to be at The Rose, but was now living in Ukiah sharing an apartment with her family. She was no longer homeless, but she said that feeling of judgment never left her, even now. She considered herself at-risk of homelessness. She related how she didn’t trust people, felt abandoned by some and used by others.
Bianca Broos, the brainchild behind this event, thanked all the women for having the courage to come to our breakfast this morning. She acknowledged the fear that can be associated with “functions for the homeless” and affirmed here there wasn’t a hidden agenda that morning. We wanted to be with you because you are people, because you have a story and we want to listen. She spoke of her own story and the catalyst that began a journey that no one chooses to take. She brought her own brokenness to the table and shared intimately the effects of decisions made by herself and others. But by the end of it all there was perseverance, character, and hope. Reminding us that by “faking it to make it”, we aren’t becoming stronger. Rather we’re putting on an exterior at the expense of our interior. Our spirit dims and small pieces of who we are will be lost as we fake it to make it for others. And for most of us, we fake it for others who don’t carry real weight in our lives – acquaintances and strangers. We are compelled to look like we’ve got it all together, and when it begins to fail and we fall apart, quickly apply another layer of mascara and put our faces back on! You’re a woman after all and you should be… Well, you fill in the blank.
I believe all the women present resonated with Bianca’s message.
Throughout the breakfast, we all had opportunity to have conversation with these women. I met a woman named Cynthia, who had been renting a room from a family. She gave up her room when the shelter called and told her there was room for her. She had a place but gave it up. I was boggled by her actions, but she explained that she felt like it was the best choice. If she lost her spot on the shelter waiting list, she would have to start over and wait. She wasn’t sure how long she would be able to maintain rent for the room, so she took what was in front of her. She chose homelessness for her and her four year old son. She lost her job over a disagreement and couldn’t find work in Santa Rosa. She was clearly panicked and unable to make a decision about which way to go. My job was to sit and listen, allow her to be heard. It was so challenging because I wanted to fix everything she was saying. I wanted to interrupt her and ask questions that would somehow help her find solutions to her problems. The experience was very humbling.
In the end, we finished with more music and there was a definite change in the mood from the beginning. We sang “Lean on Me” again and this time a few women stood and clapped, swaying to the music. We were happy to all be there together. We were a group of women who shared a morning together and each would then go our separate ways. Many women asked when we would come together again. I couldn’t say, but I know I wanted to. I prayed for these women and their children. It was a gorgeous spring morning bright and colorful, but I knew that it would be dark and night again all too soon. I prayed they would take this moment with them for the rest of the day. I know it sounds cliché, but I wanted the morning to be a little light of hope they could keep with them.
As a side note, I’ve seen one of the ladies from the breakfast at my place of employment in the past week. The best part of recognizing her was that my FIRST thought was I had breakfast with that woman last weekend! And we have something in common, we both came to the table and nothing else really defined us.
Final thoughts from Bianca: “I would love to see other people in our community come together to share with one another. Maybe you have a heart for children, or you love crafting, perhaps ironing sheets for the shelter… I don’t know, whatever you may think is needed, that will be what is necessary.”
Partial list of shelters that could use your donations or time:
Samuel Jones Community Center – 525-0226
The Living Room – thelivingroomsc.org
The Rose – (707) 573-0490
YWCA Sonoma County – website
Manna Home – 707-576-1471
Mary Isaak Center/COTS – www.cots-homeless.org
Redwood Gospel Mission – srmission.org
For a list of other available shelters for the needy in Sonoma County, visit srcharities.org.