“I was hungry and you gave me food.”

April 5, 2010
Homelessness and Hunger Grow in California

Saturday morning is always a busy time at the St. Francis Center in downtown Los Angeles, California, where I volunteer to help feed the homeless. The center is not big enough to cater to the growing number of homeless people in the city of the angels. It has a dining hall which serves approximately 40 people at one time, and a kitchen for volunteers like me who

prepare the food which includes coffee, fruit, soup, bread and more. There’s a pantry in the center where other volunteers help to package food, toiletries and fresh produce to donate to the families who come later in the day.

Hunger and Homelessness in Los Angeles

The day starts with the preparation of the dining hall. The volunteers get all the tables and chairs ready, unfolding them to set up the dining area with reasonable space for everybody to move around, bring their food and sit. While we are doing this inside the hall, people are starting to line up outside, patiently waiting until everything is done and they can enter in an orderly fashion.
In the kitchen, there are different groups of people from various parish communities who are volunteering their time and effort for a few hours at the center. The volunteers work on many tasks from setting up the seating area at the start of the day to washing and cleaning up at the end of the day. Volunteers prepare the big food warmer, make coffee, arrange plates, cutlery, napkins and cups. They heat up the pre-cooked soup, make salad and toast the bread. All of these tasks are done in a very organized way. Although nobody actively directs the volunteers, a staff member at the center is always available to answer questions such as the location of the cups or heating pans. The volunteers seem to jump into whatever work they see that needs to be done.

Less than an hour after the volunteers begin, the food is ready to serve. The person in charge at the door is constantly counting the people coming in because of the limited seats inside the hall. As the people cross the threshold of the door, most of them greet the volunteers and staff with a “good morning” and a nice smile. There are some people who don’t smile, but it might be because they had a bad night on the street or something happened to them early that morning. Plates are ready with beans, salad and bread. The people can choose coffee, milk or juice to drink. Desserts are served on the table by the other volunteers.

When I first started volunteering, my job was to pour coffee in the cups. I must have done a good job, because the next time I went, I was in charge of the bread and hotdogs, the first stop after people picked up their beverages. It was not an easy job, since we don’t want people to receive unequal amounts of food. Another concern is the speed of service. We don’t want people to wait too long in line or outside for the first group to finish. As a result, the service needs to be fast like a food court in a shopping mall.

One day while I was going around to the tables to see if anybody wanted a refill of coffee, a man suddenly grabbed me. He was a man who might be in his 60s. With my head down trying to listen to what he was saying amid the bustle of the hall, I suddenly realized that he had started praying for me. He held my head, and he said a prayer in a language that I didn’t understand. Other people at his table were looking at us, and one told me that he was praying. I didn’t understand a single word he uttered, but I felt a sense of gratitude and appreciation for the blessings he received and gratitude for the people who made this service possible. For me it was a blessing, in whatever language he expressed it; I felt so grateful that a person was praying for me. I thanked him in return for this act of blessing, and we exchanged smiles for this brief encounter. He continued eating and enjoyed the fresh cooked food and nice hot cup of coffee.

I didn’t feel tired after all the hard work spent in the center that morning. I keep remembering this act of prayer; it stayed in my heart. Here was a man, surviving on the streets of Los Angeles, who shared his gift of prayer with somebody he doesn’t know, just someone that he sees doing something to help even in a small way. His prayer held great love. He may have been physically hungry and homeless, but he shared great spiritual plenty and an abundance of grace.

With the downturn of the country’s economy, homelessness and hunger in the country are becoming more prevalent. When I first volunteered in that center three years ago, we served 75 people. The number doubled the year after, and now it serves more than 350 people just in one day. It is open every single day to serve and feed the hungry people in the city. There are other feeding centers around the Los Angeles area, but this tiny center brings joy to hungry people and a smile when they receive care, love and attention from others especially when it is coupled with a nice hot cup of coffee. “I was hungry and you gave me food.” Indeed.

Ariel Presbitero

Ariel Presbitero is the Regional Lay Missionary Coordinator and Mission Outreach Coordinator in Los Angeles, California.