Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Wedding prep insanity, or, "the meat and cheese debacle of '16"

As you may have read in previous wedding-related posts, instead of a dance at our wedding this Friday, Alissa and I will be hosting a service project for our guests to make 3000 sandwiches for distribution this winter to people experiencing homelessness and food scarcity.

Originally, I had been told we would be getting deli meat, cheese, and bread for pennies on the dollar, so I [mistakenly or not] did not budget for this expense. Unfortunately, a week ago (just 11 days before the wedding) I found out my source's source for mass quantities of those steeply-discounted products had dried up and was no longer available.

Thus began the most stressful week I've had in over four years (sadly I do remember the last time I was this close to a nervous breakdown), and yet at the same time it has also been a week full of watching God at work.

Last Wednesday morning, I posted a plea on Facebook, and also to our internal office email list, explaining my plight, and asking if anyone had suggestions for where I might source 400 pounds of meat and 130 pounds of cheese* for the sandwich making.

To say I was blown away by the response would be an understatement. By day's end, two dozen coworkers had replied with advice/suggestions/leads, as had half a dozen friends on FB. But what humbled me even more, were replies of people expressing their desire to contribute money to help defray my unexpected costs. First was an acquaintance from my filmmaking days years ago, followed shortly after by a friend I haven't seen in probably almost a year (and whom I'd forgotten to even invite to the wedding, oops! [that has been fixed now, and he's attending]). The amount of networking happening fell simultaneously into the realms of awesome/hilarious/kinda-crazy, as, for instance: one coworker called his cousin at a meat factory who talked to his manager who then talked to their VP, trying to get some donations worked out. Another called a long time friend who used to own a shop who was going to call the new owner. And another coworker put me in touch with his wife who runs a restaurant and so has access to the Restaurant Depot, which is basically Sam's Club on steroids. I kept thinking of that old joke about "I know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy...".

The reality was I had too many suggestions/leads and too few hours to follow through on them myself (remember, I still had other wedding-related tasks on my plate, too!). Acknowledging to myself my own time deficit, I reached out to the wife of one of my close coworkers to ask if she'd be willing call around on my behalf, and so she spent an entire afternoon+evening last week calling various stores and non-profits, trying to find me meat and cheese donations. As the week went on several other friends and coworkers helped in this endeavor, as well. There were so many options in flight it was quite the mental exercise trying to keep everything straight.

In the midst of all this efforting (which for me was extremely exhausting and draining), the easy thing to do would have been give up and say we'll not do the sandwich making project after all. But my stubbornness, and if I may be so bold: the feeling that God was backing us up in this sandwich adventure, kept me from giving up. Instead, I allowed myself to feel the support of Community, all of whom wanted to see us succeed in doing Good (capitalizations deliberate).

Over the next days at work, I was asked frequently if I'd gotten my meat issue solved yet. As I explained my predicament (lots of leads, haven't had time to follow through on all of them, still likely that I'll have to end up purchasing from Sam's Club simply because in-kind donations require longer lead times than the one single week we had), I was continually blown away as more and more coworkers offered, "if you end up needing contributions, I'd be willing to donate some money." It was humbling, and heartening, and reaffirming. As I wrote to Alissa in the midst of this all:

I've had three separate people offer me donations today because of my FB post. I've teared up each time.

I'm sharing this with you to say, *we* *are* supported. The unlikeliest people (well, and some likely ones, too) are stepping up and offering suggestions, tangible help, and even money, to help us do our sandwich making service project. And the ones who can't help (a few of the nonprofits/businesses I've called asking for donations) still say "what a neat and cool idea" to do instead of a dance.

Also, this is a practical lesson for me about what my Jesus Calling devotional has been talking about today and the past couple days: relying on God, rather than my own abilities. The idea of shelling out an un-budgeted $2000+ to make the sandwiches happen, was a bit overwhelming to me. Now money and help are coming out of the woodwork. God is providing. God is teaching me that God provides. God is teaching me that God works through people I wouldn't have expected God to work through. And it is beautiful.

Un-relatedly, a day or two before this chaos began, I'd started keeping a gratefulness journal - writing down (aka typing into a Google Spreadsheet) at least one thing each day for which I was grateful. My spreadsheet was soon being filled with sandwich-related gratefulnesses as more and more people not only affirmed me, but then offered to do what they could to help. For instance Monday morning arriving to work, I hadn't even made it to my desk yet and a coworker handed me a check from him and his wife, because they both believed in our project and wanted to support us.

As I mentioned I (and many others) poured a lot of energy into solving this, including coordinating a trip to price-check meats & cheeses at the Restaurant Depot (huge thank you to Agnes and Keith!), figuring out if we bought the unsliced meat there, where I could slice it and how much that would cost ($1/pound is the answer, turns out), how much time that would take, all the logistics of refrigeration between now and Friday, etc. My contact from Catholic Charities (who will be taking/distributing the sandwiches) also spent hours on the phone talking with me, various Sam's Clubs, possible in-kind donors, and so on.

In the end, even though many vendors would have loved to help, the reality became that there wasn't enough time to clear all the approvals or even to physically ship the necessary quantity of meat and cheese we needed. So, yesterday, Aaron met me at Sam's Club in Eagan, and we loaded up two shopping carts FULL of 399 pounds of ham & turkey, and 130 pounds of cheese.

Now when I say "loaded up," I mean we cleaned them out of two different meat products and half their stock of a third, in order to get all 400 pounds (and it turns out trying to math when you're tired is hard! I don't know how many times we had to re-count the meat in our carts). We had a manager digging out meat from behind the refrigeration units and pushing it through the fridge door to us, while we loaded the carts from the customer-facing side of the fridge. We talked with another manager, who agreed to give us a $25 discount in order to price match website price of the cheese from another Sam's Club (funny side-story: she radioed up to the front to tell the checkout mangers that "two men with a lot of meat and cheese will be coming you way in a minute..."). And when we were pushing the carts from the fridges in the back of the store up to the checkout, we got a healthy dose of strange looks from passers by :)

To anyone and everyone who would listen, I told them Alissa's and my story about wanting to do this 3000-sandwich service project at our wedding reception. The poor cashier who got stuck with ringing us out (193 items total), thanked me, multiple times - I don't know her story, but hearing about our project really touched her and I think made an uplifting difference in her day. She also told me that we were the second largest purchase she'd ever seen come through her line at Sam's.**

While we were ringing out, another manager came up and asked Aaron, "are you the guy I talked to on the phone earlier about the meat?" When I explained what we were doing, she got a little misty eyed and asked, "that's really amazing. Can I hug you?" We both gave her a big hug.

Roughly an hour after arrival, we'd loaded all the meat and cheese into Aaron's Catholic Charities van, and he left to put it into their refrigeration units. At long last, my week of endless efforting had a resolution. At long last, my elevated resting heart rate could return to normal.

Some thoughts and reflections. At first I thought I needed to find in-kind donations, grocery stores willing to give us 10 or 20 pounds of meat here and there, in order to minimize financial cost. In retrospect, I think the week was more a lesson about the love and support of Community. While it would certainly have been nice to get all the meat and cheese for free, I think I spent a lot more time and energy than I should have, trying to pursue that. Had I last Wednesday instead decided, "this is unfortunate, but I'm just going to go to Sam's Club and take care of it," I could have spared myself a lot of stress.

At the same time, in the midst of that stress, I kept listening to two particular songs over and over. In the first (a particular live rendition of "King of My Heart"), the singer improvises some prayers in the middle of the song, and sings full of joy that "He's come to overwhelm the thing that's overwhelmed you this morning." That encouragement kept me going in the middle of my most stressed-out days. A reminder and acknowledgement that God's got this. Not just a platitude of "God's got a plan" or something trite like that. I truly saw tangible reassurances that God was working in this thing I called a "debacle," and when I thought about how many people were helping alongside, how could I not see God's providence in that? This related strongly, I think, to the second song that kept coming back to mind: "God is on the move." Wednesday Thursday and Friday last week, I basically kept these songs on repeat on my headphones, because even in the extreme stress, I still believe in their Truth.

* These poundage numbers are corrected here from my original Facebook and email estimates.

** UPDATED: Our total cost at Sam's was $1472.54. Of this, $250 was paid for by an "Action Team" grant from Thrivent Financial for Lutherans. $25 was discounted from Sam's Club management as described above. Another $495 was paid for by contributions from friends and coworkers. And at our wedding, an additional $370 was gifted to us for this project. If you feel so led and would like to contribute toward offsetting the remaining $332.54, please let me know!

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