Remembering Humanity

by Rachael Hemsi

Rachael Hemsi, a longtime volunteer with Love to Table in San Francisco, recently moved to NYC and started her own branch of Love to Table in Harlem

There is something re-humanizing and loving about walking the streets of Harlem, nodding at people, smiling, buying someone a sandwich, picking up trash. This simple experience has me feel what it means to be human, to care about another person, to be connected. In the busy day-to-day, in the pandemic, it’s easy to lose that connected feeling, but when I walk Harlem’s streets, I remember it.

I was a social worker many lifetimes ago. I interacted with so many people on the street and wished I could care for them all. They lacked food and shelter, but what always seemed the hardest was how their lives felt invisible. Someone asking for money will be just as happy, if not more, if you talk to them, say hello, let them know they are heard, that they exist and are seen.

The other day as I walked down the street, I saw a man in line to put his bottles in a machine to get money. One of his bags of bottles rolled away, but he couldn’t leave the line or his other bags. A few people saw that bag roll. I did what seemed only natural — I grabbed the bag and handed it to him. I think his smile did more for me than anything I did for him. It’s this sort of interaction and exchange that brings life meaning. This is what it means to be human, and this is how I want to live my life.

Harlem creates the feeling of everyone wearing their humanity and hearts on their sleeves. With each step we take, we remember what it feels like to be human, to care, to connect, to be alive. Inspired by Love to Table in San Francisco, we thought to make a few burritos in our kitchen and give them to the homeless in need. We got the ingredients, rolled 70 burritos, and handed them out. We started doing weekly meals here, and our hearts were warmed to feel the dignity and care with which each person received the burrito.

We offered Christmas meal giveaways in a church. All our volunteers cooked at their homes and brought the food to the church. This was high quality food – one of our chefs worked for 20 years at the Four Seasons. We had clothes and toys donated, set tables with beautiful flowers. We were so excited that we were ready an hour before the meal started. People would walk in from the streets, come down the stairs, get some clothes, and enjoy warm meals. A few grown men sat at the dining table and started crying. One man asked for meals to go, and when I asked how many were in his family, he started to cry. Our meal was more than nourishing food, it came with love, attention, respect, and fed all hungers for the 220 we fed and our volunteers. We all left feeling enlivened and deeply nourished. This is how we give back the beauty and meaning that Harlem has given us.