During the first weekend of every month, the priests at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish hand out slips of paper at all the Masses asking for various items to be donated to the church’s food pantry. Together with helping needy families with financial aid for rent and utilities assistance, managing this pantry is my primary responsibility as the parish’s Director of Social Services. (It sounds very simple, and it is: families living within our parish boundaries — an area of approximately fifteen square blocks — are eligible to receive grocery assistance once a month. Families living outside the parish boundaries may come in once per year on an “emergency basis.” The groceries typically include a can each of soup, corn, green beans, peas, refried beans, tomato sauce, and tuna; a bag of rice and a bag of dry pinto beans; a loaf of bread and a box of cake or sweet bread; and a few boxes of macaroni & cheese, Ramen noodles, or spaghetti.)
Our parishioners, who are far from wealthy, rise to the occasion. At least, they give as much as they are able. At the beginning of the month, after the Mass appeal, the shelves are usually half-full, and these supplies last us a week or so. By the next weekend, more parishioners will have brought in their share of donations, and we’ll have enough food to feed another week’s worth of families. The next two weeks are often trickier; the stream of incoming food becomes a trickle, the volume of families coming into the office increases as their monthly food stamp allocations have been largely spent, and by the end of the month we are rationing the food far more stringently, sometimes running out of provisions altogether, and waiting anxiously for the next month’s donation plea. Occasionally we are able to devise a solution to the problem of our dwindling stocks. There are a few wealthier parishioners whom I can call in a pinch — they donate generously, bringing in boxes upon boxes of food. We may have a special event: making a pitch to students at Lanier High School down the street to bring in one can each, or, such as the past weekend, hosting a Turkey bingo. (“It’s a lot of fun watching those turkeys play bingo,” Father Marty deadpans — but it’s true that the parishioners, at least, come in droves to play round after mind-numbing round of bingo, at the price of four cans of donated food per game card. They hope to win money, door prizes, or frozen turkeys, just in time for Thanksgiving.)
Watching the shelves intently as I do actually amounts to a sort of a drama. I imagine I know how Pharaoh must have felt, worrying every harvest season whether his storehouses were filled with enough food to last his people through the winter. This is a kind of anxiety most relatively well fed Americans don’t have to consider as they grow up, and for me it’s been eye-opening…although not even so eye-opening as some of my visits to my twenty-some-odd elderly homebound clients. When I visit their homes and go to put their food away in their refrigerators for them, it breaks my heart to see how empty their shelves and veggie crisper drawers can be: a half-dozen eggs, a skim of milk left in an old plastic container, a few jars of condiments with nothing left to season, two avocados, three lemons, a heel of bread.
This is why I was overjoyed last weekend when, for whatever reason, more food wound up in the Jesuits’ closet (where anonymous donors silently deposit their offerings for me to pick up) than I’d seen in a single day since my arrival here two and a half months ago. I don’t know to what to attribute this outpouring of generosity, but whatever the reason for the wealth of food that arrived even before the infamous Turkey Bingo, I look at the shelves — half-full on a good week — and they are now literally overflowing. To know that I will not have to turn any families away empty-handed this month — as simple as it would seem to be to send them back to their empty cupboards without any real skin off my own back, their problems vanishing from my horizon as they step outside my office door — fills me with a joy, and a gratitude, which is ultimately inexpressible.
I do know one individual, personally, who contributed a great deal of that food. His is an extraordinary enough story that our pastor, Father Ron Gonzales S.J., has incorporated it into many a powerful homily. This gentleman is a retired police officer, not very wealthy and in fact living in a trailer home and on social security, who suddenly came into possession of a small tract of land. With money from this land, he could very well have risen out of his own mediocre social class and begun to live a more comfortable existence festooned with several of those possessions which we’re told imbue us with value: whether it’s the proverbial nicer car or the proverbial bigger-screen TV. Instead, he let this inheritance pass through his fingers like sand through a sieve: not a religious man, he nonetheless sought out our parish on the West Side and announced he wanted to give it all away, handing me thousands and thousands of dollars in Walmart gift certificates so that struggling, single-parent families could buy their kids presents for Christmas. “I sorta always wanted to be like Santa Claus,” he muttered sheepishly, almost shame-facedly. Whatever other money remained from his inheritance, he’s since channeled into other charitable actions: bringing us food when we need it, giving other gifts to other parishes that minister to other families equally in need.
I make $80 a month through my work with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Before this year, I was a student living very modestly, because I had no other choice than to live modestly. I do wonder whether, if I suddenly inherited a plot of land (large or small), I would be selfless enough to resist all the temptations that would converge upon me in that moment: both my own desires, and the social pressure to spend, to purchase, and to hoard. This pressure is not always malevolent, but it is insidious: our lifestyle tends to expand to fit our budget just as gas expands to fill a container, not because a conscious choice is made to be greedy, but because no conscious choice is made to change the paradigm of what ought to be done with acquired wealth. A saint is easy to recognize, but nonetheless difficult to become. This particular individual made the decision to change that paradigm, and while I’m sure he has moments when he regrets it deeply, I’m equally sure he has other moments when he realizes that in this act of charity he has planted the seeds of some not unambiguous salvation.
Bracketing that exceptional case, I’ll just end this post with a plea. You may not feel it’s necessary, or possible, or prudential for you or for people in general to scatter large sums of money or large amounts of goods, but anchoring that question in the imminent, the concrete, and the digestible: without almost any doubt, there is at least one food pantry or social service office or homeless shelter in your city or town or village that has a paid or volunteer staff watching the shelves nervously and wondering whether they will have enough supplies to make ends meet for the people they serve….wondering who the next Good Samaritan will be to walk in through their doors or leave a can or two or ten outside those doors. If you don’t know where these services are offered, it’s as simple as calling up a neighborhood church or looking it up on Google. (Believe me, it’s easy: I’ve been drawing up whole lists of social service offices in San Antonio for the last several weeks.) You might be curious to inquire what sort of resources they offer and what sort of help they need, and if the Spirit moves you, you might even consider buying a few extra cans each time you go grocery shopping and bringing them by these places, if you don’t already do something like this regularly. The material aid such an act will bring will most likely remain invisible to you — but its effect will surely be felt, and someone somewhere will be grateful for it.