Friday June 21, 2013

Peter S. Kahrmann

I've never heard of anyone complaining about having too many friends. I'd be utterly perplexed by someone who did.

Hard times, particularly hard economic times, are known to clear the field of pseudo friends, swell one's appreciation for real friends, and, if you're lucky, allow you to find friends in the most unlikely places. Unlikely places like the Friendship Center Food Pantry on Eagle Street in North Adams, Mass., not much more than a stone's throw from Bennington.

The pantry opened in February 2011 and is run by the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative with the cooperation of the Western Massachusetts Food Bank and the Berkshire Community Action Coalition. Not long after it came into existence, members of the Friendship Pantry visited Bennington's own Kitchen Cupboard food pantry at 800 Gage St., during the latter's open house on Nov. 6, 2011. The Kitchen Cupboard, run by the Greater Bennington Interfaith Services, opened in April 2011.

Far too many of us (myself included) had and have to reach out to area food pantries and soup kitchens in search of supplements to our food supply. While it may, in our heart of hearts, be easy to recognize one needs (and deserves) these resources, giving yourself permission to act on this realization can feel humiliating, embarrassing, and shameful. Of course, accessing these services is none of these things. But, sadly, we live in a culture in which there is no shortage of bigoted voices firing pulverizing accusations at the economic poor (and, increasingly, the middle class) telling them they're a disgusting lot indeed and questioning whether they deserve any help at all in the first place.

Intellectually understanding these accusations are bogus (and, by the way, morally corrupt) doesn't make the journey to emotional understanding an easy one. You won't have to take this journey when you go to the Friendship Center Food Pantry. The people who work there - all volunteers, mind you - give you the impression things like condescension, pity, patronization, judgment, and scorn have been forever banned. Instead, one encounters kindness, a singular form of compassionate attentiveness, and the very real impression each pantry worker sees you (experiences you) as a friend, as a genuinely good and decent human being.

I know of no group more skilled at picking up on social phoniness than those who've known and in too many cases still know the poisonous, hateful touch of bigotry. I've met and talked with quite a few folks who go to the Friendship Pantry and I've yet to hear so much as a syllable of complaint. More than once, in fact, the conversation has revolved around a heartfelt relief and appreciation that we are treated with kindness and, most importantly of all, with respect, as equals, which, of course, we are. People who work at the Friendship Pantry make navigating the rocky terrain known as hard economic times a wee bit easier.

Knowing them can also lift a sagging spirit. Recently I went to the pantry weighed down by stress and nearly debilitating anxiety resulting from a harshly unpleasant reality I am currently dealing with. When I walked into the pantry and faces turned and smiled at me and asked how I was doing, my day, in that instant, improved enormously.

I'd be willing to bet that those who volunteer their time in places like the Friendship Food Pantry and the Kitchen Cupboard have no idea what a real difference they make in people's lives. It is easy to lose sight of one's value and worth when going through tough times. When you go to places like Friendship and the Cupboard, your food supply gets a much deserved lift, and your spirit does as well.

That's all for now. In the meantime, be well, stay safe, and remember to live.

Peter S. Kahrmann is a Banner columnist.