Happy Fridays in Harlem

by Deepa Roy

Dee, a regular guest at Free Food Harlem, was born in the Himalayas in India and has studied, worked and lived in Europe and the Middle East as a teacher, guide, lecturer, counselor, and journalist before moving to the United States many years ago. A strong believer in the sacred worth of all things living – human, animal, or botanical, she supports and celebrates the immense value, worth, and dignity of life around her.

Over the past few months, Friday evenings have become a very special time, eagerly awaited and looked forward to by countless people in Harlem and also by people from the boroughs of Brooklyn and the Bronx. Every Friday in the late afternoon, just as the sun loses its sting and begins to set in a rosy glow, countless happy folks of all ages head towards a particular destination for a delicious dinner bringing an end to a whole week of stress and strain for many New Yorkers. Talk about “Happy Hour” ringing in the weekend!

Smiling faces with light hearts and happy feet joyfully head towards a dining room beautifully set out with snow-white table cloths, decorated with beautiful vases of fresh flowers, and tableware neatly wrapped in soft white napkins. Long tables are set up with delicious food and served piping hot by gentle and smiling volunteers. Everyone who comes is welcomed with warmth and invited to take a place at one of the many tables.

Once seated, the guests are served with refreshing beverages like seltzer made with real fruit juices, sodas, or water. This is followed by the meal as per the menu set for that day. It could be mouth-watering barbeque chicken served with broccoli and mashed potatoes or breaded fish with collard greens and French fries, garnished with sumptuous tartar sauce made by the chef. Delicious meals like mustard chicken served on a bed with spinach and mushrooms and accompanied with yellow rice seasoned with exotic herbs remain unforgettable. People are served as many plates as they request and never sent away hungry. The meal always ends on a sweet note with delicious freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and pound cake, strawberry cake, and sugar-coated biscuits.

The most amazing thing is the generosity of this one-of-a-kind, unique organization called Unconditional Freedom, which serves and helps to uplift the homeless, the down-trodden, and people without social and financial clout. The services of these volunteers even reach out to inmates incarcerated in prisons, bringing them hope and fortifying them with courage and determination to face life on newer and better terms. Clothing, shoes, canned foods and educational materials, toys, and books are put out for people in need of these items to tide them through hard times. Bags of food, mainly extra dinners and cookies with water, are handed over to the guests for their elderly or sick family members, who could not make it out here for the meal. Each bag is topped off lovingly with a few beautiful fresh roses or lilies adding that special touch of caring and sharing, fully honoring the dignity of the person receiving the bag.

I first learned about this very special group who worked under the banner of Free Food Harlem when cards were distributed by one of the main volunteers, Rachael, to people waiting in long lines for pantry. Rachael handed me one of her cards and warmly invited me to come for a meal on Friday. I did so and was absolutely amazed to see the sheer dedication, love, and gentle handling of the many hungry people crowding the long tables, eagerly waiting to be fed. In the past, I had the opportunity to work in refugee camps and amongst survivors after earthquakes and floods with people like Mother Teresa during and after the Bangladesh War and with Missionaries of Charity, Red Cross, and other notable global organizations. I immediately saw the very special and unique quality of this great philanthropic and humane project.

Unconditional Freedom, which hosts the Friday event “Free Food Harlem” every week, rain or shine, is infused with love, special warmth, and caring so rarely found in this uncaring, tumultuous, topsy-turvy world we live in today. This spirit of love and service is also beautifully embodied by Caroline, one of the other lead volunteers, who always greets and welcomes every person with her beautiful smiling and cheerful hello. To me, these volunteers are absolute angels (without wings) pouring out their good will and loving care for all who are able to receive their dedicated service. May The Lord Bless these wonderful volunteers and all participants of this very worthy organization, and may He inspire others to take this torch of selfless and noble service and dispel darkness and despair in other parts of this great planet which we all live upon.

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