Leo Green Jr. matter-of-factly runs down his monthly grocery list for breakfast: 75 dozen eggs… 60 pounds of sausage links… 320 pounds of bananas… and about 20 gallons of orange juice.
No, he is not a cook at a diner, or a man with an unusually voracious appetite in the morning. By day, Green works as a judge in the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County in Maryland. But on the fourth Thursday and Friday of each month, he is part of a crew of about seven volunteers from St. Pius X Parish in Bowie, arriving around 6 a.m. at the kitchen of the SOME Dining Room for the homeless and poor, located at 71 O Street, N.W., along an inner-city street in Washington, D.C.
St. Pius X is one of more than 30 Catholic parishes that like dozens of other churches, community, school and business groups, are part of the Provide-A-Meal volunteer program at SOME (So Others Might Eat), an interfaith organization founded in 1970 to bring help and hope to the poor in the nation’s capital. First known as a soup kitchen, SOME’s comprehensive services for those in need include nourishing meals every day of the year, medical and dental care, emergency housing, addiction recovery, job training and affordable housing.
On this morning, about 400 women, men and children will have breakfast in that dining room, assisted by about two dozen volunteers on the floor – including employees from the PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) accounting firm and students from The Catholic University of America. The volunteers from St. Pius X forming that day’s kitchen crew continue a parish tradition of service there that began around the time the meal program started in 1978.
Like the guests eating breakfast there, each volunteer has a story, as they in their own way help carry out two of the Corporal Works of Mercy – feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty.
From kitchen to courtroom
For Judge Green, volunteering in the SOME kitchen is a matter of “giving back,” and a work of faith.
“You’ve got to give back,” he said, adding that his service there makes him more conscious of the many blessings in his own life. “…It’s the part we’re supposed to be doing for Christ, and it’s an easy call to answer.”
He helps coordinate the volunteers from St. Pius X Parish, and using a monthly donation of about $400 from the parish, he also purchases the food, and he and the other parish volunteers then deliver it to the SOME kitchen and cook the eggs and sausage. The St. Pius X Sodality supplies between 600-800 sandwiches, mostly ham and cheese or peanut butter and jelly, that their fellow parishioners also bring to SOME.
“I do this because I wonder if a family member of mine or someone I love was in these straits, I’d want them to have a meal. It’s a humbling thing,” said Green, who has served as a judge since 2001. He believes his volunteer service there has made him a better judge. “I connect the two. I see what some of the people who come in front of me (in the courtroom) are faced with.”
Cast iron skillets
Early on this morning, the judge is not hearing a case before his bench, but cooking large quantities of scrambled eggs on a stove using an industrial-sized cast iron skillet, as is Deacon Bob Seith from St. Pius X, who works as an actuarial programmer for a company in northern Virginia.
What he likes best about volunteering in that kitchen is “just the camaraderie and spirit of fellowship we have working together. We’re doing good things and having a lot of fun,” he said. Those parish volunteers, he said, “are looking for opportunities to help.”
The deacon said that work reminds them how through serving others, they can “be the hands and feet of Jesus” in their community.
Nearby, St. Pius X parishioner Rick Wharton – the manager of a defense company in Washington – is heating sausages in the oven. He noted that parish volunteers like to do other service in the community as a group. Recently, a crew from the parish replaced the gutters and downspout at a crisis pregnancy center in Bowie.
At SOME, Wharton said it’s gratifying for him “to see how grateful the folks are for the meals. In so many cases, (you think) ‘there but for the grace of God, go any of us.”
For about six years, he’s helped with the St. Pius X kitchen crew. “The words always stick to me (from Matthew 25), ‘As you did to the least of my brethren, you do to me.’ ” Wharton added, “This is an opportunity to see Jesus in all these folks and make a small difference in their lives.”
A mother’s adage
For volunteer Paul Mason from the Bowie parish, serving at SOME brings to mind something that his mother Carmen, a nurse, instilled in her children: “The only way to receive is to give.”
Mason, who works as an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, also gives back to the community by visiting schools in underserved communities and promoting the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) program.
He enjoys serving with the St. Pius X kitchen crew. “These guys are cool… They care about others,” he said. Seeing the people who eat there “humbles you, to appreciate what you have,” he added. “It gives you a different perspective on life.”
Like the other volunteers, Mason empathizes with the dining room’s guests. “Sometimes, you need an opportunity. Sometimes you need a helping hand,” he said. “It only takes one mishap to put that (person) in a spot where you need help.”
His mother’s message of giving with open hands and an open heart is a lesson that Mason in turn is trying to teach his daughter Chelsea, who is 11. When she’s older, he hopes to bring her to SOME to volunteer with him there. “I’m always trying to teach her to give back,” he said.
‘Shoot for the stars’
In the dining room, Elizabeth McElhiney, a 19-year-old student from The Catholic University of America, served coffee to guests at their tables. That morning, she and two other students met at campus around 6:40 a.m. and got to SOME’s dining hall around 7 a.m. Three mornings a week, students from the university serve together at SOME. On some mornings, they have up to 10 volunteers serving there.
McElhiney said the experience helps her “to have a broader understanding of the world around me… (and) to appreciate life and what I have.”
For her, the work comes with a special reward. “I feel more connected with God whenever I’m serving,” the CUA student said.
The Massachusetts native, who is studying biology and Spanish at Catholic University, said the SOME guests in turn encourage her to do her best in school and in life. “They always tell me to shoot for the stars and go for the dreams I have,” she said.
For Daniela Zara, a senior political science major at Catholic University, the spark for serving at SOME came from an email inviting students to join their peers volunteering at the dining hall for the poor and homeless.
“I saw the email and thought, ‘Why not?’” said the 21-year-old member of CUA’s graduating class of 2016, who had been volunteering there since the fall.
On that morning, she served scrambled eggs to the guests. Many of the homeless or working poor men and women of different ages and backgrounds who came through her line expressed thanks, and children smiled at her.
Zara, a graduate of St. Elizabeth School in Rockville and the Academy of the Holy Cross in Kensington, said she’s learned a lot from her volunteer experience there.
“It reminds me they (the guests) are people, too. They’re good people. They just fell on hard times,” she said.
The member of St. Raphael Parish in Rockville said serving there reinforces her belief that “Jesus is in everyone. It’s so true here. It reminds me of your duty as a Christian to serve Christ, and this is a true embodiment of service.”
Being an early riser is not always something that comes easily for college students, but Zara said she got used to the early hours, plus it was inspiring to join other students in that work.
“It’s cool to see a group of students who come almost religiously every Thursday. That’s what I love about Catholic University. I’ve met some of the most genuine, service-oriented people there,” she said. “With all the stuff (happening) in the world, it reminds me there are good people out there.”
And for Zara, serving scrambled eggs to the homeless offers her a reminder of their humanity. “This is a real way to do something to be helpful, to be there for them, come face to face with them and see them for who they are – people.”
SOME’s kitchen manager, Laval Sanks, expressed admiration for volunteers like the St. Pius X kitchen crew scrambling eggs, pulling sausage out of the oven, and cooking grits, which would soon be served to guests coming through the food line by the Catholic University and PcW volunteers helping out that day.
“They’re our lifeline,” Sanks said.
Daryl Wright, SOME’s program manager for food services, added, “We couldn’t do the work we do on a daily basis without the support of people like this.”
At SOME, the guests not only can receive a warm and nourishing meal, but they can also get showers and clean clothes to wear. “When people leave, they have a smile on their face,” Wright said.
Seneca Wood, the agency’s program director for dining room volunteers and material donations, said the faithful SOME volunteers make it all possible. “The guests continue to come back to us, because they know we’re her to serve them.”
One of the guests coming through the food line that day, Steven Robinson, said he was from Pittsburgh and homeless right now, but he hopes to get a job in office security. He expressed gratitude to the volunteers, for not only serving food to guests, but for giving them “love, honor and respect, all year around. I love to see the people here,” he said.
‘People amaze me’
Father John Adams, a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington who serves as SOME’s president, arrived in the dining room that morning to see the guests eating breakfast and the volunteers serving them. Day in and day out, he said it’s inspiring for him to see that scene unfold, “the fact that people come, need something to eat, and we’re privileged to serve them.”
The scene also reflects a sad reality, the priest said, noting how in the capital city of this wealthy nation, so many people are struggling with poverty. One of SOME’s pamphlets notes that the agency, through its array of programs and army of volunteers from church, community and business groups, is “restoring hope and dignity, one person at a time.”
Reflecting on those volunteers, the priest smiled and said, “It’s wonderful. It’s an inspiration. People amaze me.”
Those volunteers, he said, “want to be part of serving people in need… We’re doing a mission of mercy that Pope Francis talks about.”
During his pastoral visit to Washington last fall, Pope Francis after becoming the first pontiff to address a joint meeting of Congress, immediately afterward went to Catholic Charities to meet and pray with the homeless and poor and with the staff and volunteers who serve them.
In declaring this year as a Jubilee Year of Mercy in the Catholic Church, Pope Francis called on the world’s Catholics to carry out and live the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. For 46 years now, SOME volunteers and staff people have been carrying out those works of mercy to Washington’s poor, including the corporal works of feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty at the agency’s dining room.
In a book about SOME’s history and everyday service called Slow Miracles: 40 Years of Restoring Hope and Dignity, Father Adams in his foreword wrote, “I truly believe in God’s presence in our world, residing within the human heart.”
The priest, who with his family experienced homelessness himself while growing up in Pennsylvania when his father became severely injured in an industrial accident, said he will never forget how the priests and women religious in their community helped his family during that time. Father Adams, who is 75 now, has been working at SOME for 38 years, and he said for volunteers and staff alike, serving there is a way to live out the Gospel message.
“As Pope Francis says, we’ve got to be out there with the people,” the priest said. “It’s everybody’s job.”