I have been helping to serve dinner at the Veterans Restoration Quarters in Asheville, N.C., with other volunteers from Asheville Mennonite Church.
As veterans come through the serving line, interacting with them is enjoyable but usually very hurried and brief. I find that refilling their drinks afterwards allows me to meet them on a more personal level and hear their stories. I can relate to them and understand their stories and their choices on some level because I, too, am a veteran.
Many, but not all, are at the Quarters because they have nowhere else to go. Some have no one around who wants them, either by choices they made, or by choices made for them. I often look out over a cafeteria full of 200 to 300 lost souls who have found their way here now. I am mindful that there but for fortune am I.
The Veterans Restoration Quarters is not just a place to feed and house these charges. It sets goals for the veterans, to which they are accountable, and assists them on their journey to wellness and independence as they become productive and responsible members of society. The goals normally take a year to a year and a half to accomplish.
One day I met Reggie. I came upon a table where a young black man was sitting. By his body language, he seemed a little uneasy and apprehensive. I introduced myself and sat down. I asked about his story and what circumstances led him to us.
All veterans have a different and interesting story. Reggie and I continued talking. Eventually my wife Barbara sat down with us and joined the conversation. The dinner time wound down and the volunteers from Asheville Mennonite were starting to leave.
I invited Reggie to come worship with us and he asked about directions to our church. He didn’t have a car or any transportation. Barbara said we would be glad to give him a ride.
So began our friendship with this man, who has shown himself to be a man of God with character that I would be proud to see in any of my children. And this friendship has impacted my journey as well.
What Reggie doesn’t know is that I used to harbor an intense dislike—even a hatred—for black people, and spent years getting over my anger and disgust. I had been attacked by two black men and left to bleed on a Brooklyn sidewalk, fortunate that their pistol had misfired. It was a long journey to overcome these feelings.
We learned fairly recently that the night we met Reggie, he was feeling very discouraged and was considering returning to Charlotte. Our interest in him and his story was a turning point for him. Our pastor Sanford Yoder began mentoring him, and we have all come to love him and what he brings to our friendship. This congregational service has benefited us personally and as a congregation as we serve others.