What a Parish Can Do About the Hunger Problem
By Susan Kuziak
"For I was hungry and ye gave me meat." Matthew 25:35. Many of us feel the urge to fulfill this Christian duty but the question today is how. In urban areas such as Yonkers, NY where Holy Trinity parish is located and nearby New York City, the number of homeless, "street people" and beggars has increased frighteningly. The average person finds him or herself in an uneasy dilemma. Will giving help or hurt? We read about many "cons" who earn more panhandling than some of us do working full time jobs. How do you determine who's truly needy? It's often difficult to assess the state and motive of those asking for money for food. Will a donation to a beggar on the street really go to alleviating hunger or will it be spent on alcohol or drugs, thereby doing harm, not good?
Faced with these difficult decisions but still wanting to do something about the hunger problem, a small group in our parish decided to investigate alternative ways to help. Setting idealism aside and being realistic about our goals and capabilities from the start was a must. We knew that starting a soup kitchen on parish premises would not be feasible. First, we did not have the know-how or manpower. Second, it was necessary to acknowledge, unfortunate though it may be, that many homeless have mental illness, drug or alcohol dependency, and other problems that we were not equipped to handle. We could be placing our parish and parishioners in peril by attempting such an endeavor.
THE FIRST STEP
We researched groups in our community that were already established and experienced in meeting the needs of the hungry and the homeless. We invited volunteer leaders to come and speak to us about their programs. We found a group. Sharing Community, that served meals to persons from a homeless shelter, homeless families and any member of the community who was in need of a meal. Because this service was provided only on weekdays. Sharing Community relied on churches and other community organizations to provide the weekend meals. A benefit of this program, and one that's particularly helpful if you're trying this for the first time or with a small group, is that they were flexible and offered participation in a variety of increments.
We decided to begin small. Our group consists of four or five adults and two children, with a few other occasional helpers (This demonstrates that you don't need a lot of people to attempt this project, but I know of parishes with many participants and the more people helping, the easier it is to do.)
We began serving a meal prepared by the center on the first Saturday of every month from about 12 to 3:30 in the afternoon. For the most part, the people we served were quiet, friendly, and grateful. But there were times when individuals were loud, swore, or threw out the food we were serving. Homeless people live lives that we with homes and three meals a day can scarcely imagine, and sometimes their actions are not what we are used to seeing. While such responses were the exception not the rule, they need to be expected and accepted in this situation.
AFTER WE GOT OUR FEET WET
Gradually we took on more responsibility for the meal, first donating the food and money for meal preparation, and finally acquiring, preparing and serving the meal ourselves. Some of the food we purchase. To finance this we instituted a monthly pledge system where parishioners and those outside the church who wished to do something about the hunger problem pledged donations of $5, $10 or whatever amount they wanted to. We were also able to harness our parish resources in gathering food by publishing a monthly list of foods needed to prepare the next meal and placing a box in the vestibule where parishioners could drop off food donations. We found we had a much higher success rate when we told them to bring specific items, such as elbow macaroni and canned tomatoes rather than just asking for donations of canned goods. We try to get the bakers of the parish to provide desserts.
HOW ARE WE DOING?
We have managed to acquire the food, cook, and serve a meal once a month for over a year now and plan to continue. I'd like to say we have a smooth-as-silk system, but that is not exactly the case. Sometimes we have stumbled in planning and scheduling, and we have met some resistance. Unfortunately, some of those we approach still have the attitude that "those people should get a job," "they're just lazy drug addicts, why should we support them?" The trick is not to force the issue but to utilize parish resources individually and to their maximum. This is a project that offers many roles for many parishioners. There are lots of ways to get involved, and it doesn't need to be an all or nothing proposition. Servers are needed. For those who don't wish to serve at the center, there is cooking and baking that can be done at home or at church. Volunteers are needed to shop, publicize required food items, and solicit donations.
In the end, all those who help have the satisfaction of knowing that their time, money, and efforts are truly aiding the cause of alleviating hunger. Even though it is for a tiny segment of the population and a short span of time, it is a good feeling to know that through God's work and help someone wasn't hungry for a little while.
TIPS FOR A FEED THE HUNGRY PROJECT
- Assess your strengths
and resources and find an existing program in your community that matches
your interest and abilities. Consider the number of people willing to participate,
kitchen facilities available, etc.
- Start gradually.
If this is new, there will be surprises. There may be some parish resistance.
Start slow, learn as you go.
- Have realistic
expectations and keep a sense of humor. In the beginning many of us expected
the center to have the same kind of efficient organization we look for in
other areas of our life. The employees and donations for community groups
trying to help the hungry and homeless are often erratic and unpredictable.
The people you serve will not always respond with gratitude. What you see
at the serving location can be depressing. In some ways, it is necessary to
erase expectations and do the work of God with whatever you are given. Foster
camaraderie in your group. Plan meals over a pizza. Exchange ideas at a barbecue.
- Set up a calendar.
This is a project with many components. Don't rely on the same people to do
everything and pull it all together at the last minute. Try to sign people
up ahead of time for whatever tasks they are interested in.
- Publicize your
project. Encourage as much parish participation as possible. Emphasize that
it is not an all or nothing job. If someone has a few hours, they can be of
- DON'T GET DISCOURAGED!!
Susan Kuziak is an active member of Holy Trinity parish, Yonkers, NY and is Chairwoman of the volunteer group. "She presently works for Women's Day magazine as an editor on their staff.
Taken from the OCA Resource Handbook for Lay Ministries