A few weeks before, I had attended a “BeFriender Ministry” in Albuquerque, which teaches active listening and support techniques for people to use in their church and personal life. One of the other participants, Father Nathan Libaire, told me he was the parish priest for St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Santa Fe and invited me to see their lunch kitchen. Father Nathan is a man with a gregarious personality and an evident love for people — all people. So although I am not Catholic, and had never worked with homeless people, I drove to Santa Fe on that chilly December morning with my husband, Richard, to check it out.
As we arrived we were greeted by Father Nathan and the Monday morning team, which was busy preparing sandwiches. We were immediately welcomed and put to work. There didn’t seem to be a boss; everyone just knew what needed to be done, preparing sandwiches in an assembly line, stuffing plastic bags with chips, folding the lunch bags after they were filled. Most of the other volunteers were St. John’s Church members, but no one was proprietary about their job or acted as if we were outsiders in “their” church. They just told us what was needed and we rolled up our sleeves and got to work. It was truly a joyous occasion in that kitchen.
In the short time between when we finished and when the guests arrived, we sat at their tables and drank hot coffee. Willie had brought doughnuts for the team. Andy and Richard talked football. We were joined by Deacon Jerry Reynolds, a warm-hearted man who takes caring seriously, and who leads the Caring Ministries at St. John’s. Soon the first guest arrived and then the next and the next. Each one took a bagged lunch, a drink and a bowl of steaming chicken and rice soup, chockfull of peas and carrots, made by Father Nathan and his mother. I positioned myself by the soup pot to help anyone who needed assistance getting to the table and then went around the tables offering crackers.
On any given Monday, Tuesday or Thursday, approximately 60 guests arrive for lunch. I don’t know where they all come from or where they live. What I do know is that I have never seen people so polite, grateful and gracious. One of the team recognized one of the guests on that Monday morning and went up to greet him. The man had owned his own restaurant in Santa Fe for many years but it had recently gone out of business and he was now in line to get food. A couple came in with a teenage girl, an infant and a little boy around 6 years old, who had the saddest face I’ve ever seen. I cannot get that precious little face out of my mind.
Even after the weather warms, the homeless will be coming to St. John’s Lunch Kitchen and other places that offer a meal. There is truly no season for homelessness. Years ago, when I was studying to be a social worker, I learned that the average American would have only three months after losing their job because of a layoff or illness before they would deplete their savings or max their credit cards and lose their home. We are all closer to homelessness than we think, especially in this economy.
I returned to St. John’s Lunch Kitchen to volunteer with my husband, and we will go back again this winter. Each time we leave we walk away feeling that we have helped provided nourishment to those in need and that we made a difference in someone’s day — and we count our blessings.
Gloria Fournier Valdez lives in Albuquerque with her husband Richard.