[S]eptember is an exceptionally warm month in Orange County. In fact, most people refer to it was fire season because the weather is so hot and dry it literally starts uncontrollable brush fires. It’s nothing like the summer I had just come from, the kind one can only get in the Pacific Northwest where the sky is crystal clear and the air crisp and pleasant. Although, to be honest, I had found the California weather quite an appropriate welcome back to my former home. I was as it seemed in all aspects in hell.

I had been back in Orange County for only three days when I was encouraged, (term used loosely) by my parents to attend Mary’s Kitchen for the first time. They had been working Mary’s Kitchen religiously for about seven months by this time and had found a pattern and a place there that they were quite comfortable with. I, however, had not found anything in California that I was comfortable with yet so I was willing to give it a shot. After all, it was practically an oven outside, might as well make some eggs in it.

As I mentioned before, I had felt coming home, that I was coming home to the Hell of the United States but I truly had no idea what hell really was. Yes, I was hot. Yes, I had to move back into my parent’s house and no, it didn’t have air conditioning but it did have a roof and running water and a cabinet full of wine to help ease me through the toughest of evenings. I assume that there are homeless people leaving everywhere in the US, in every state and I also assumed that the few who lived in Orange County would be left over hippies from the days of Woodstock, enjoying the sunshine as they nomadically wondered the beach in search of seashells and Mary Jane. I was wrong.

As I pulled up to the gate of people standing out front the kitchen, I was shocked to see how many of them were neatly groomed, button-down shirted people of all sizes, colors, and ages, all ready to work but lacking the means. These weren’t people who had given up a life of leisure of a life of laziness, these were people who had not been given a break in life and it was hard to see.

As newest member to Mary’s Kitchen, I had to follow seniority and was placed under dishwasher/pancake mix scooper because there is a system to working your way up in this place and is as follows, newbie, sausage, potato peeler/onion chopper, egg breaker, egg mixer, potato cooker, egg cooker, pancakes. My mom had been moved recently to pancakes and my siblings to eggs which had left me scrubbing and cleaning and by the end of the meal, looking like I had just gone down a slip and slide in my clothing.

As I vigorously attacked an egg crusted pan in the sink, a friendly face tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Erin how would you like to serve?’. I wasn’t sure what it meant but I was sure that it had to be better than scrubbing dishes and so I willingly agreed. That was the moment that changed everything.

As I walked outside, greeted by a line of friendly faces, I saw the people who had seen hell. It was bloody hot outside, sweaty, lazy, can change your temper by stepping outside in it hot and I watched as all these people stood in that and smiled. I took my place at the egg pan and opened the foil and smiled back at them.

As I did so, an older gentleman approached. His eyes were light but his face had been withered by sun and time and hardship and he could hardly look up from his plate to meet my gaze however in all his turmoil he managed to say to me, “Good morning” and I realized he was right. It was a good morning.

As I stood there, scooping up scrambled eggs to flop onto his plate, I realized that the place where I had found hell, in the heat and the pollution and the anger of California drivers (I mean really, come on, it’s a STOP sign. Stop.), he had found heaven. He had found a home and a place that would feed him. He found faces he could recognize; a place to sit that wouldn’t turn him away. I often wondered, if one of the inns in Bethlehem hadn’t turned away Mary and Joseph, where we might be today, what Jesus might have been like and it became clear to me that in Mary’s Kitchen is the inn that said ‘Welcome’ not just to Christ but to all his children no matter what situations life had thrown at them. Here, in hell, the skies opened up the sunlight and the birds sang and people were fed and then I realized that perhaps this isn’t hell at all.

As you can imagine, in hindsight, this was quite an awakening for me, a young woman who had just graduated from college and lived a completely self-centered lifestyle. I had found a place in hell to call home, one where I was fed in ways that food cannot tame and quenched by the sweat of hard labor. Mary’s Kitchen became not just a place where the poor were welcomed and a part of but where I was welcomed and a part of. It was my little home in hell, as well.