One man’s Year of Mercy commitment to feed the hungry has quickly become a parish effort with volunteers booked several months in advance.
As thrilled as Richard Rodriguez is to see the school children, ministry groups and other individuals step up to help serve soup every Friday or assemble toiletry kits and a sack lunch to go, his heart can’t help but fast forward in time. How will his newfound friends get a warm meal once the “Year of Mercy” ends?
For now, parishioners at St. Jerome — plus a couple of groups from St. Helen in Glendale and St. Clare of Assisi in Surprise who heard of the effort — are providing the funding, cans of soup or ingredients for homemade soup to feed homeless individuals within the parish community every Friday evening. Others donate bread and pastries that can be offered as a side or as dessert.
“The response has been overwhelming. We have an overabundance of volunteers every week,” Rodriguez said.
He gives each volunteer group the choice of using soups on hand or providing their own. So far, all groups have opted to supply their own products. They’re meatless options during Lent, with two soups available each night.
The guests don’t seem to mind either way. An average of 15-20 come to the parish hall each week. Many faces are the same, but there is often a new face or two. As of Feb. 26, St. Jerome parishioners served 112 meals over the course of eight weeks.
The “Weekly Soup and Bread Meal” launched Jan. 6. Its lowest night was the second night with Rodriguez blaming the bus strike. Other guests head over on bicycle or by foot.
St. Jerome had built-in advertising assistance with parishioners such as Joe Razzo and Kevin Barnes. Their work with Basic Mission ministry — founded a good decade ago out of St. Jerome — regularly puts them in touch with individuals who are homeless within the community. While about their normal work, the men invited guests to take advantage of the warm meal.
A simple card accomplished the same task. One gets tucked inside a basic lunch package the parish office keeps on hand for those in need.
Barnes tries to reassure Friday’s volunteers who might feel a little helpless as they wait behind the serving line. He said it’s easy to be the person who turns away, especially when encountering a homeless individual in public. At St. Jerome, it’s different.
“Just by being here, you’re showing God’s love,” Barnes reminds volunteers. “Most important is treating them like a person.”
Overcoming that stigma of people who are homeless being drugged out or lazy has allowed Rodriguez to see them as “really neat human beings.” He said he has been humbled by their humanity and by the willingness of volunteers. Once some of them found out that “Ralph” regularly leaves his dog, “Petey” outside to guard his bike during dinner, volunteers began bringing K-9 treats.
On Feb. 26, the human guests got a treat of their own: live music. Doug Barnett and Barbara Rayes-Banrett usually help lead the music parts of Mass or have other gigs around the Valley. When they heard of the parish’s latest outreach and discovered they had a night off, they were eager to get involved.
Rayes-Banrett thought live music would make the environment more beautiful, happier. The couple brought music from seven decades, but stuck mainly to the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s based on audience demand.
“We felt so much joy in our hearts to share friendship,” Rayes-Banrett said. She noted that it’s not always hunger that the guests are looking to cure.
“It’s a safe place to use the bathroom. It’s respite from the heat. It’s loneliness,” she said. “People just want some uplifting moments in their life.”
She described the parish’s weekly hospitality for the homeless in the community as one way of living out St. Jerome’s mission statement: “We see God in all and respond with compassion and service.”
As for what will happen to Rodriguez’s newfound friends once the weekly meal commitment ends with the Year of Mercy, he can at least take some comfort knowing the parish office will have lunches to go and that nearby churches and St. Vincent de Paul’s Sunnyslope dining room are there to help.