Meeting the Need
Feeding the multitudes has taken on added meaning as Rhode Island's economy continues to struggle. Three times a week, a truck loaded with food and clothes heads out from area churches to help people in Providence and Woonsocket who need it the most. Patterned after a national program, this local outreach continues to grow - as it meets a growing need.
The truck is running 15 minutes late on this snowy Saturday, but those gathered at a park in Woonsocket never doubted it would arrive.
That's because week-in and week-out - volunteers have come with food and clothes for those who need it the most. Social Park is the first of what will be four stops, along with a church a few blocks over, a women's shelter near downtown and a housing project in the city's north end.
Robertson: ``They know we're coming. They're waiting for us.''
Debbie Robertson coordinates the truck runs for her church, Barrington United Methodist - which partners with six other churches to form the Rhode Island operation of a national program out of Texas. It's called Mobile Loaves and Fishes and was founded more than a decade ago.
Barrington Methodist, like most of its counterparts, covers three runs during its rotation: not only to Woonsocket on Saturdays, but to Burnside Park and several other locations in Providence on Sunday afternoons and Wednesday nights.
Hummel: ``Is there a common thread that you see of volunteers coming through the door?''
Robertson: ``I think that at this point in time people realize it's not just homeless people we're feeding. It's the working hungry. They're not invisible anymore.''
Besides Barrington Methodist, the Rhode Island contingent includes St. Mary's Catholic Church in Bristol, St. John's Episcopal in Barrington, The First Unitarian Church on the East Side of Providence, St. Luke's Catholic Church in Barrington, Open Table of Christ in South Providence and St.
James Lutheran in Barrington, where Andrew Simon is the pastor.
He says Mobile Loaves and Fishes has become part of many people's survival strategy.
Simon: ``You have this group of people that now you're in a relationship with - they're expecting you to be there. They've come to expect the truck will show up at a certain time and they really need what we have on the truck and that's really powerful. The landscape of the cities we visit changes after you're involved with Mobile Loaves and Fishes you start to look at places like Burnside Park or Kennedy Plaza in a different way.''
The program has a basic formula, but each church has flexibility with the details.
At Barrington United Methodist, which we followed for its rotation last month, some of the 40 volunteers arrive to make sandwiches and organize food that will be distributed on site. On this Saturday morning volunteer Bob Sheldon has made a huge pot of beef stew, which will be kept warm in containers at the back of the truck, along with piping hot coffee and hot chocolate. On the other side are clothes and toiletries, some donated, some purchased.
Robertson estimates it costs about $200 a run, or $600 a month, for the church. They rely on donations and hold an annual fundraiser.
Robertson: ``It's an organization that could bring the whole congregation together because there's something for everybody to do of every age. You'll have people in our church - we have Hervey who is 94 years old. He was going out on the truck with us for a while until his wife decided maybe it was just a little much. So he's there all the time to load that truck.''
Robertson leads the group in prayer before heading off to Woonsocket. The visit is a reunion of sorts as the group catches up with people they haven't seen for a month.
Robertson: ``And you get to know them because you do it on a regular basis. Yeah, you get to know some of these guys' cause you recognize them and when you don't see them you start asking, `Hey where is so-and-so, I haven't seen him a month?' And you know their stories. And they get to know you. There have been times I haven't gone for a month and they're like: `Where were you?'
``I had a man at Crossroads once, we were out there, freezing cold, raining - the worst weather. We were drenched. He looked at me and goes: `I can't believe you came out here.' And I looked at him and said,
`You're out here, we're out here.'
`` We have pudding, chocolate or vanilla - or applesauce."
Simon: ``Part of the way the truck is set up is, you know we could bag up a bag of food and hand it to somebody and just go down the line and be out of there in half an hour. But part of the relationship part of it is important. So instead of doing that, 1-on-1 we meet people at the truck and then we go through and ask them what they like. `Would you like a sandwich, what kind of sandwich would you like? Would you like this drink or that drink?' And we talk with them. Every run, at least once and often more than once, people will say, `No thanks I don't need a sandwich, give it to somebody else who's hungrier than I am.''
On this Sunday there is a steady raw rain, but the line is long and persistent at Burnside Park, across the street in the shadows of the Biltmore Hotel.
The scene is repeated Wednesday night, although the crowd is smaller. So they pack up the truck and head over to the Urban League, where word spreads quickly and dozens of people materialize seemingly out of nowhere.
``What would you like on your hot dog, ketchup?''
Because of the weather the crew has opted to bag most of the food in advance for a quicker distribution. By the time they reach their third stop that night, Emmanuel House on the city's south side, they're almost out and not everybody will get food tonight.
Robertson: ``Sometimes you run out and that's the killer. You run out of food and you have people standing there and you're like....we prepare for 100.''
Hummel: ``Sunday, driving, raw rain and the line didn't end....''
Robertson: ``...for that little bag of food we think, `How long is that bag of food going to last 'em?' But for some guys, that's all they get, that's it. That's all they're going to have that day.''
Simon: ``The heart of ministry, as you mentioned, is meeting people, sharing resources and going beyond the boundaries of these walls. There are things we can do with this truck and people we can meet that we'll never meet just sitting in places like this, and planning worship services or looking at budgets.''
Pastor Simon says it's all about taking the ministry to the community.
Simon: ``It's the mistake the church and religious organizations have made for years and years and years. You know, we kind of bought into this idea that we build places like this and open the doors and wait and people will stream in. That's not how it works. It's never really been most effective. We have to go and meet people and interact with them and get to know them and build relationships with them.''
The stop at Morin Heights in Woonsocket, which draws mostly children, is perhaps most poignant.
Robertson: ``This one little girl on Saturday morning came, and her mom brought her, she had two girls. One girl had a really nice winter coat, and the other one had a little hoodie. She didn't even own a winter coat. And we said, `We've got a brand new one for you.' So it had a coat and the mitten attached still and we put her in it and zipped her up. And her mother said: `That's the first winter coat she's ever had.' And she was 2 1/2.''
Simon: ``We were standing by the truck and it's mostly children that come to the truck there and there were a couple of boys, one in particular - he had on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt and my mind went to: well why did you leave the house without a coat on, it's freezing out here? Then as he came around after getting the food we asked him do you have a coat? Aren't you cold? And he said, `I don't have a coat.' And thankfully we had children's clothing, children's coats. And we got him set up with a new winter coat - it was a brand new coat and that made me feel good leaving there knowing the next day, the next week at the bus stop he wouldn't be standing there in shorts and a t-shirt. He'd have something to keep him warm.''
Robertson: ``We can't give them a job or buy them a house or put them up in an apartment. But we can give them a little bit of hope. We can remind them that we're here. We're here, we hear you, we're going to do what we can. I never have done Mobile Loaves and Fishes where I didn't just walk away and come home and appreciate what I have but always wish there was something more that you could do for these people.''
Simon: ``Some of these people who are wanting to pass what we have on the truck on to others are people who you know are hungry. And I think that's the spirit of giving and it's not something that always comes through in the way homeless people or families with low incomes are portrayed in the mainstream media. We often hear about that they're there by choice or because they don't want to work or because they're lazy or because it's easy to be in that position - you meet these people and it's just not the case.''
Jim Hummel, for The Rhode Island Spotlight.