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.

THE START

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.
     
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  • Start gradually.   If this is new, there will be surprises. There may be some parish resistance.   Start slow, learn as you go.
     
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  • 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.
     
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  • 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.
     
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  • 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   use.
     
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  • 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