Thursday, March 22, 2012

Pantries, Prayer, and A Reply

So, a Catholic "moral theologian" read an article on Community Provisions, and wrote a pretty hurtful post, which was not completely accurate and incredibly judgmental.  I commented on his blog, and asked him to read this reply post; he deleted my comment.  I e-mailed him and asked him to read this, but he has never responded.  He has, however, posted twice to his own blog, so I know he is still living.  He is just not very nice.  So, while I had previously included a link to his original post, I am deleting it.  So there, dude.  If my readers want hateful crap, they can find it on their own.  But I don't think they do -- they're pretty nice folks.  So, you can read news stories about the pantry, though.  This, which is from our local paper, and this, which was on

Two weeks ago, when things slowed down for a few minutes during a food distribution day at Community Provisions, I popped my head into my friend (and fellow volunteer) Helen's little cubby, where she sat behind a desk, reading.  Most of the morning, she's talking with clients -- finding out how many are in their families, explaining how our pantry works, asking if they need help with any other issues besides food security, making their next monthly pantry appointment and yes, asking if they would like her to pray with them.

I stepped out of my comfort zone for a moment, and asked her if she would keep my 6-year-old grandson, Nathan, in her prayers, as he was to have surgery on his hand the next day.  "Come here, kiddo," she said, and took my hands in hers; as I am not inclined to say "no" to 80-year-old women who ask for my hands, I guess I was explicitly compelled to do so.  Then, she lifted up my dear boy in the most sincere and loving prayer I have heard since Grandma H. died.  Helen prayed that the surgeon's hands would be steady, that Nathan would be brave, that his healing would be quick and that all his family would have peace.

That's the kind of praying they do at Provisions.  Prayers for renewed health, employment, family concerns.  Prayer that is sincere, heart-felt and urgent.

And only if you want it.

I've only been working at Provisions for short time (compared to some of the others, who have been there since the beginning), but was quickly made to feel a part of the "family".  And just to clear another thing up for Mr. Conte, there is only one paid staff member at Provisions, and that is Paul, the director.  The rest are just there because they want to be there.  Therefore, when the staff holds hands and prays together before the pantry opens, it's because they want to, not because they feel compelled to do so.  In the interest of complete disclosure, it should be noted that sometimes, helpers come to the pantry to fulfill their community service obligations; they are always welcomed into the prayer circle, but not forced.  This week, the helper opted out, but a few months ago, our helper, Jon, eagerly entered into prayer with the staff, and added his own petitions.

It's certainly not Catholic prayer.  And it's not Lutheran prayer.  Or Nazarene, or Methodist, or Presbyterian. It's just sweet, open, conversational, loving prayer, asking God to be with us all as we try to give a little comfort and peace to our clients, along with their bags of groceries (just as Mr. Conte says prayer should be:   "out of love, faith and hope").

Although I enjoyed looking at the pie chart Mr. Conte linked to in his post, I would be hard pressed to tell you where most of the volunteers go to church, if they even do.  I do know where my friend, Peggy, goes, and that Paul goes to the same church, and we know that the sweet girls who come to bag groceries on Tuesdays are Mormons on their mission, because they wear name tags.  I think I'm the only Catholic in the mix, but believe me, that's not what it's about.  The non-denominational nature of this agency is, I believe, the key to its success; it is a respected and integral part of our community services and an open-minded and open-hearted respite for those in need.

While the issue of prayer at Provisions has caught the national media attention, the primary problem is a rather simpler one, I think.  Having read the federal guidelines for faith-based pantries which receive government food assistance, I believe that what they do at Provisions falls squarely in line with restrictions regarding prayer.  The Federal government's main point is that no religious service or observation can be required before a client receives services -- I am 100% in agreement with that.  However, the State of Indiana interprets that phrase differently.  I'm not legal-minded in the slightest, so I'm not going to delve in to that any further, but I believe that with just a little open conversation between Federal and State regulators, this can be easily resolved.

The only other thing I will add is that last week, on Fox 59 News, I heard a representative from the State say that even if just offered prayer, a client may feel pressured, and not know how to say "no" to the offer.  And that just makes me sad -- maybe even a little mad -- as I believe it makes a gross assumption about the strength of our clients.  Although they are at a low point in their lives and must seek assistance, that does not in any way mean that they cannot stand up for themselves, think for themselves and make decisions for themselves.

You know how I hate to be political, but sometimes I just can't help myself.  If I ran the State of Indiana, my concern would be more for WHY the residents of my state had to seek help from food pantries, instead of IF they are being emotionally damaged when asked if they would like to pray at one.   Just sayin'.

But you know I don't want to be Governor of the State of Indiana, I just want to be Queen of my little corner.    Where, as you know, I have my own personal theology:  Do good work.  Love your neighbor and the Earth.  Don't be an ass.

And one thing I would never allow in my Queendom, in my home, or in my circle of friends and family, is a blanket condemnation of "grave sin".  Especially from someone who didn't fully understand the people or the situation he was condemning.  Once again, just sayin'.

Crap, Mr. Conte,  I know I'm a sinner.  I'm a really big sinner.  I screw up on a constant and regular basis.  That's why I'm such a big fan of the Corporal Works of Mercy (for all you non-Catholics, they're "good works"; we just give them a lovely name -- you can read about them here).  Helping others gives me a little hope for mercy for myself.  It is working at Provisions (or Anchor House Shelter, or saying the Rosary at funeral, or playing for the residents at the Lutheran Home, or taking a bag of clothes to Goodwill) where I feel farthest from pretense and sin.  Honestly, if I get to go to Heaven and God tells me that indeed, I was committing a "sacrilege against" Him, well, I'll be really surprised.  And, in much bigger trouble for much bigger things, I assure you.  

(In some ways, I feel like a bit of a poser, attempting to defend the rights of prayer at Provisions.  Since my sweet Alex died 2 1/2 years ago, I haven't really been able to pray.  I don't avoid occasions to do so, but still feel hollow, and am waiting, and am thankful for dear Mother Teresa, who experienced the darkness and pain of "abandonment", and whose writings and example I cling to.)

But I still believe in prayer; more so, I believe in people of prayer.  Even more, I believe in the people of Provisions, and in all people who daily commit their lives toward the benefit of others.  And that includes all those on the State and Federal level who I know are just trying to do their best.  We just need to keep working together toward the benefit of what unifies us -- our fellow humans.

Mother Teresa says it better than I ever could:

I am a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world.   Spread love everywhere you go.  Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.   Good works are links that form a chain of love.  Love is a fruit in season at all times, and within reach of every hand.  Many people mistake our work for our vocation. Our vocation is the love of Jesus.  

And by the way, the surgeon's hand was steady.  Nathan was brave.  His healing was quick.  And the minute he walked out of the recovery room with Sarah, and I saw his amazingly sweet smile, I had peace.
Way to go, God.  And thanks, Helen.


Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Swirly Roses Birthday Cake!

When I posted pictures of our first ombre (graduated colors) cake on Facebook, a dear friend said she would love step-by-step directions.  So, since I was going to attempt the cake again for Sarah's birthday, I took many pictures for this little lesson.

I am a big fan of the Cake Mix Doctor, and almost always start with one of her recipes.  One of my favorites is the Bride's White Cake (which I usually make for Sarah's birthday, topped with fresh raspberries).  I've made it so many times, I know the recipe by heart.
(but I'll show you the page from  my cookbook, anyway-- what a mess!)

Here's what you will need:
(Wow, I feel like The Pioneer Woman!)

Bride's White Cake, a la The Cake Mix Doctor
First, preheat your oven to 350.  Adjust your oven racks so that your oven is divided in thirds.   Grease and flour 4-9" round cake pans.  Or, if you are lazy like me, use Baker's Joy, one of the best baking inventions ever.

(This is the recipe for 1 2-layer cake; for this ombre version, I did this twice.)
1 box white cake mix (I always use Duncan Hines.  Always.)
1 cup whole milk
1 stick unsalted butter, melted and cooled
3 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla (Jackson County's Marion-Kay, of course!)

Put all ingredients in mixing bowl.  Don't use a big powerful mixer (like a pink Kitchenaid) as they incorporate too much air into the cake -- instead, use a hand mixer (when I read this hint in her book, I thought the Cake Mix Doctor was just being cautious, but she was so right.)  On a low speed, mix for about 30 seconds.  Scrape the bowl, and on medium speed, beat for 2 minutes.  Be sure to beat for the entire 2 minutes.  (Believe me, I have proven that hint correct, as well.)  Now you could stop here, divide your batter between two pans and have a beautiful white cake.

BUT, if you want to make a fancy, ombre cake, get out your food dyes!  Make the two recipes of white cake, then divide each batch in two -- into 4 bowls.  This is going to make a nice, tall cake!  (However, it would be easy to make just one cake batter recipe and divide that into 4 bowls -- you would just reduce the baking time, since the layers would be thin.)
The tinting is just a little tricky, but you can do it!  For the purple cake, we started with the lightest layer, using just a bit of violet Wilton gel color.  Then, a little more for the second layer, etc., etc.  Just take your time, and add a little bit of color at a time.

I decided to call this cake "The Sunrise Cake"; I started with a soft yellow for the 1st layer.  For the second, I started with the yellow again, but then added orange, little by little, until it was a nice yellow-orange.  The third layer was orange, then for the 4th, I started with the orange and added red.  Just like the color wheel!  (The colors you see in the bowls are very close to the colors you will see in the finished cake -- just a little more vibrant after baked!)

Transfer the batter to your prepared pans, and bake at 350 for 25-28 minutes, two layers on each oven rack, leaving space between the pans.  Rotate cakes and switch racks after 14 minutes so the cakes on the bottom rack don't get too brown.  Cakes are done when they spring back when poked with your finger, or when a toothpick comes out clean.

( I must interject a sad Sunrise Cake story.  My dear Clay, kitchen cleaner and helper extrordinare, offered to switch the pans half way through the baking time so I could go upstairs and write a bit.  Unfortunately, the pot holder he used was damp, his fingers were scorched and he dropped one of the pans while saying something sweet, I'm sure.  So, we lost a layer -- which will become apparent in some of the following photos):
Small sigh

Let your cake layers cool in the pans for about 10 minutes, then run a knife around the outside, invert the cakes, then invert again so that the crown of the cake is pointing up (yet another appreciated CMD hint). Let the layers cool completely. When they are cool, trim each layer to the same height, using a serated knife. There are all sorts of fancy ways to do this, but here's my way:

Choose something in your kitchen that's a little more narrow than your layers and use that as your guide, cutting a small channel all around each layer (for this cake, my toothpick box was perfect.)  Slice through the cake using that channel as a guide, then carefully lift the excess cake off and feed it to your loved ones.  Presto!  Nice even layers!

Meanwhile, make the white chocolate/cream cheese frosting.  (I doubled this recipe, too.)
White Chocolate/Cream Cheese Frosting
6 ounces of white chocolate, chopped and melted over a double boiler then allowed to cool  (I use Ghirardelli bars)
1-8 ounce package cream cheese, softened
4 Tablespoons butter, softened
3 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon vanilla

Beat the cream cheese and butter for about a minute, or until they are nice and smooth.  Mix in the white chocolate and beat for 30 seconds or so.  And then, mix in the powdered sugar and vanilla (I always make a mess at this point) and beat for a minute or so.  When it is just right, stop.

Now you're going to divide the frosting into four bowls, but a little differently than you did for the cake batter -- one bowl should have about 1/2 of the frosting, and the remainder split evenly between the other 3 bowls.   This is so that you can:  A) ice a thin layer of frosting on each cake layer, B) pipe a dam around each layer, C) put a crumb layer over the entire cake and D) still have plenty of frosting for decorating the top of the cake in the swirly roses.  Tint the icing just as you did for the batter.
I like a little jam/jelly/marmalade in my cake; for this one, I used lemon curd.  Spoon 2 tablespoons of lemon curd for each layer into a small dish and give it a good stir to make it smooth and spreadable.  Now you're ready for assembly!
Choose the 3 (or 2, in my case) deepest-color layers; ice each layer with a thin layer of the frosting.  Pipe a dam of icing all the way around and fill that dam with the lemon curd.  Something like this:

Stack the layers color-wise, and place the lightest-colored layer on the top, cut side down (this gives you a nice top surface for smooth frosting.)  Crumb coat the entire cake with a thin layer of frosting, and put in the fridge for about 15 minutes.

I thought I would be extra fancy, and fill the piping bag with all  4 colors, hoping for a gradual color change (you can see the bag in the messy picture with the four bowls of frosting).  It did work nicely, but there wasn't enough room in the bag for all the frosting it took to get around the cake, so I had to improvise a bit and use a second bag, refilled with the color I was working on.  Actually, I don't think you can tell.  Next time, I would fill 2 or 3 bags that same way -- I think that would work.

To pipe the swirly roses, fit your piping bag with a star tip, and starting at the center of each rose, just make a concentric circle.
Start piping roses in a row on the bottom of the cake and work your way up.  Whenever your frosting seems to get a little warm, and doesn't make a crisp swirl, just put your piping bag in the freezer for a few minutes.  I did this several times in the course of working on this cake.

When you get to the top of your cake, just fill it all up with roses.  Remember, they don't have to look perfect to be beautiful (words to live by!)
I always have some little points of frosting -- dip your finger in some cornstarch and just tap those down:
There you go!

And here is our birthday girl!
And a slice!
(it still looks pretty with just 3 layers, doesn't it?)

Peace.  And swirly roses.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A Little Sewing, A Little Sunshine

 Dull, dreary sofa on the left, transformed into happy sofa on the right by new pillow covers,

and a little photo editing.