A Heart Forever Changed: My Journey with Free Food Harlem

Click here to watch video tribute to Free Food Harlem by Caroline Griggs

by Caroline Griggs

In 2021, I visited New York City to see some friends. While there, I spoke with one of the founders of Free Food Harlem, Rachael Hemsi. At the time of my visit, she was making sandwiches for the homeless. She said, “Slice these tomatoes, I need to run an errand.” For three hours, I sliced tomatoes. Alone. A thought of self-pity traveled through my mind. “Wow, I came all this way to be with friends, and now I’m standing alone, slicing tomatoes.”

5 hours later…

We were handing out the sandwiches on the street, walking from corner to corner in Harlem asking people if they would like a sandwich. While on the walk, Rachael shared the vision of Free Food with me. She said, “One day, we will be in a restaurant. It will feel like a three-star Michelin chef restaurant. People from all over the city will come to our restaurant. And it will be Free.” I immediately judged her, and it went something like this, “Um… You’re crazy. We are handing out twenty sandwiches on the street. In the cold. Good luck!”

I bent down to give a gentleman my last sandwich. “Would you like a sandwich?” I asked.

He said, “Yes, thank you.”

I responded, “Thank you.”

I was flooded with a warmth in my heart; I felt emotional. Something in me had cracked open. The receptivity of this man, the deep outpouring of love and gratitude he offered me; it blew me away. A well of emotion hit me, those three hours cutting tomatoes, the cold walk on the streets, the time spent making the sandwiches. All of it was for this moment. This one exchange. I want for nothing, and he wants for everything, and yet here he is pouring more love into me than I could possibly imagine. From this moment, a new thought crossed my mind. “I will do anything to feel this feeling over and over.”

Fast forward three years, we made it. We cooked in more than ten different kitchens, served in over twelve different locations, and have provided upwards of 40,000 meals. Today, I look around, and the dream she mentioned three years ago is alive. We serve in a restaurant on the first floor of a church, our meals are prepared by a trained chef, meticulously crafted to display beauty and fill the soul. We are flush with volunteers to serve as waiters and staff. We are a full-fledged restaurant.

While I sit in awe of accomplishing an impossible dream, I write to you today, with a deeply full heart. Today marks the last day of my time in New York for a while. I leave behind this nonprofit project that I poured my heart, soul, resources, and time into co-creating. I gave every last ounce of myself over to this project, and yet, I leave today, with the fullest heart of my life.

On February 5, 2024, we accomplished the dream to its pinnacle at our first “Monday Nights at Free Food” event: people from all over NY were invited to our Free Food restaurant to hear an incredible speaker and dine with us, and of course we invited our regular patrons. As I sat there watching everyone intermingle, I couldn’t help but smile as Muhammad lit up his table with his wild 70-year-old-man flirting style, and how Lloyd had his whole table laughing with jokes and raw vulnerability of going in and out of jail. And I stood completely honored as I watched my friends ask questions and share their hearts with the woman presenting.

Free Food Harlem participants come and dine with us every Wednesday and Friday. Upon walking in, I am immediately greeted by people, my friends, shouting my name, saying hello, and giving me hugs. I am a woman who wears her emotions on her sleeve. Every feeling I have flashes across my face. This has always been me. I cannot hide them. And of course, they catch them immediately, “Caroline, are you okay? Are you sad today? How are you feeling? Oh wow, Caroline, you are so happy and joyful today.”

They reflect each emotion, with no judgment, just a simple acknowledgement of where I am at, and what they see. It’s a beautiful gift to be seen with no preconceived notion to change or fix. The guests from Free Food have become my friends. We hang out every Wednesday and Friday evening. Serving them delights me. Sometimes they want special things. I used to have difficulty with this, catering to their needs, but they have expanded my heart with their delight and warmth.

“May I have a meal to go? May I have an extra soup? Do you have any water with bubbles? Do you have some milk? Could you make me a tea?” I have come to love these moments of delighting them, to be a light in their life, the way they have become a light in mine.

Free Food Harlem is about serving those who are seen as invisible and discarded, and treating them with a deep sense of dignity, love, and respect. Perhaps we are so quick to cast them aside simply because it disgusts us that someone could transmit so deeply the exact thing we need. You see, that’s the wild experience I have with the people we feed at Free Food. They have this simple way of knowing exactly how to direct love into my heart. That is what I felt in the moment, on the street with that one sandwich.

How is it possible that this one exchange moved me so deeply? Free Food asked me to strip away all that I knew of myself, every impossibility I put in front to keep me stagnant and small and push it aside. It asked me to create a world to bring love and dignity to people who captured my heart. It feels impossible to put into words the immense amount of gratitude I have for the people I have come to know over these past three years. I am forever indebted to them, for their love, their generosity, their smiles, and their sweet requests.

I write this letter today, as a thank you to them. Thank you for asking more of me, for never hiding your heart, your love, and your wants. Thank you for giving me a place to serve and love and share. Thank you for welcoming me with shouts of my name, following us from place to place and street to street. Thank you for revealing your heart naked and bare and giving me the courage to do the same in every moment. I carry you with me always and forever. No matter where I go, I think of you, and will do everything to continue to give away all that you have given me.

Caroline Griggs started her career as a pharmacist and found Unconditional Freedom through the Free Food Harlem program. She has been a volunteer for the past three years and has helped grow the program to feeding over 500 people per week.

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