Serving You Serves Me

by Caroline Griggs

In Harlem every Wednesday and Friday, I would serve the homeless. We set up the space with square tables, beautiful Gucci chairs, tablecloths, and flower decorations. Before moving to California, I volunteered with Free Food Harlem, the nonprofit that serves the homeless sit-down, restaurant-style meals, for two years. I helped start this nonprofit. I have served as a waitress numerous times. I treasured the opportunity to serve the people, greet them, say hello.

On January 30th, Women Over Dinner hosted one of their larger events in our Free Food space. I have served more than 220 meals with Free Food Harlem and as the women filed in, suddenly I found myself nervous. I was back in high school, quivering about what other women would think of me. What would they think of my outfit? What would they say about me as I said hello?

As these thoughts ruminated in my mind, I found myself wondering, what is going on? Why is this happening? What is it about being in a room of women that suddenly has me concerned about the way I look and present?

I thought about this as I walked around the room, saying hi, feeling a bit pulled back, scared of offending or being offended. This is how I grew up with women, doing everything I possibly could to show up in such a way that rather than be criticized I was complimented. I adorned myself with beautiful clothes, accessories, painted on makeup, and smiled at every turn to make sure I presented myself well.

In this moment, walking around, I thought, “Wow, I have worked so hard to unveil myself layer by layer, to never have to be this woman again, to be a woman who can be me unconditionally, in all locations. And here I am putting it on again, that fast?”

I walked to the bathroom to put myself together, and I looked in the mirror and said, “Be you.”

I came out in a new way. Rather than cower, I emanated. I brought the joy and love and freedom I bring to Free Food. I dropped deeper into my body, and I served each woman, knowing, she is me and I am her. I know where she is, and I stand as a possibility of where she could go.

As the women sat around the table, talking and answering questions, I could feel the room warm up. A woman who I was serving felt far and a bit distant, shy, and guarded at first. As the night went on, I felt her melt, she radiated warmth and her cheeks blushed pink. One woman turned to me and without words I heard her, more water please; it was soft and subtle. She emanated her desire to me, and I brought her water. As I walked around, I felt the connection between the women, bringing each woman’s essence alive. The woman who entered with her hair down, slightly covering face, now had it pulled back with a radiant smile. Another woman, touched her hands together across her heart, sharing deeply about an experience. I removed her plate a little slower simply to bask in her a bit longer.

As a waitress, I wasn’t experiencing the event firsthand or answering the questions, but I was there, and I experienced it. A room that started out feeling slightly cold with clouded waves of heat, left the evening bright, warm, and alive. And I, too, felt alive. The women at the table thanked me. They hugged each other. They exchanged numbers.

Some may think this is witchcraft or magic, but to me, it is women. Women taking a risk, unveiling the mask, letting go of the protective layers, and taking that one brave step to say yes. Yes to themselves. Yes to their power. Yes to their vulnerabilities. And yes to their voices.

To those women, I say thank you. Thank you for letting me witness you. Delight in you and serve you. You filled me. Thank you.

Dr. 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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