Early on a Monday morning as the streets and sidewalks of Washington were filled with commuters, a team of 27 volunteers gathered in a room in the lower level of the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, to to serve breakfast to 60 homeless guests from the community.
Paul Bakken, who is 80, had cooked two big pans of beef stroganoff. The retiree had owned a catering business and once worked as a microbiologist. When asked why he had been volunteering in the weekly program for the past four years, he said, “Why? Because the Lord asked us to do this.”
“It’s very, very rewarding,” he said. “I’ve gotten to know a lot of them… A lot of these people don’t have anywhere to eat. It’s hard to think of people walking the street hungry.”
Sharon Savinski, a retired former government attorney, was also helping on the food line that morning, as she has for the past decade. She too knows many of the guests by name. “They could not be more lovely human beings,” she said.
The breakfast items included bagels, pastries, muffins and fruit, along with the casserole and bagged lunches. The guests are also fed spiritually, by a Bible study after the breakfast.
“It’s what we were taught, to see the face of Jesus in everyone we see and serve,” said Savinski. “It’s greeting and loving your neighbors, and listening to them.”
Stephanie Lipinksi Galland, a tax attorney who has been volunteering with the program since moving to Washington in 2001, was serving as a team captain that morning. She was there, she said, “because my parents told me long ago, you have a responsibility in life to share with other people.”
Robert Young, who formerly drove a Budweiser beer delivery truck but now is retired, has been helping there for the past 10 years. “We set tables up, clean up, make sure everybody’s got a nice meal,” he said.
Ray Charles, who became homeless after getting hurt at his workplace, now volunteers at the weekly breakfast. “Everybody says I make coffee better than Starbucks,” he said.
Like other volunteers and guests, he often sticks around for the Bible study discussion. “I make everybody sees God has a purpose in their lives,” he said. “…It’s according to things you do in your life, (that) God blesses you in the end.’”
The Bible study “keeps you spiritually strong throughout the week,” he said.
Ryan Orth, an outreach specialist with a program called Pathways to Housing, was there that morning to help the homeless guests link with job, housing and medical services.
“It’s a great breakfast… It gets people to start the week off right, well fed,” he said.
Volunteer Kevin Coates, a former construction worker, said he once experienced homelessness, and had come to the breakfast as a guest and prayed in the chapel upstairs. Now he tries to be an advocate for the city’s homeless. He helps set up the breakfast, “whatever they need,” he said. “I was homeless once. The positive thing was, I wasn’t going to remain homeless, and I wanted to do something for other people,” he said. “It means a lot to me to give something back.”
Carol Lopez and Gretchen Birkle volunteered side-by-side in the food line, giving out pieces of fruit and pastries.
“I feel like we’re doing Christ’s work on Earth,” said Lopez, who said sometimes now when she is walking in downtown Washington, her homeless friends greet her by name.
Birkle said the homless guests, “even in their struggles, they’re finding things to be happy for.”
Lopez said that she has recently become legally blind, but the homeless men and women she’s come to know have taught her important lessons about “trusting in God.” She added, “They’re human beings just like us, brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Maria Rodríguez-Kenny, a retired social worker, said her volunteering there is a way for her “to say thanks for all the blessings I received in my family.”
“They are very good people,” she said of the guests. “…I go around with food and have the opportunity to talk (with them). This is the reward for me.”
Jim Nash, a retired moral theology teacher from The Catholic University of America, helped lead that morning’s Bible study, after guests read that Sunday’s Gospel reading in English and Spanish, about Jesus healing the man born blind.
“It feeds my spirit,” he said. “The Holy Spirit is calling me to do it. We’re feeding them, and they’re feeding us, with their faith, their resilience.”
He noted how one guest once said, “I feel like the kingdom of God is right here.”
Father Rafael Barbieri, a parochial vicar at St. Matthew, said his experience of serving in that ministry has “really added something to my life as a priest and Christian, to see the face of Jesus in each one of them… Each one has a value, each one has a dignity, because Jesus is in them.”
Lopez, who in the Bible study shared her struggle with losing her sight, said, “It’s tested my faith. It’s made my faith stronger. That’s why we’re all here today – faith in Christ.”
Dan Horning, the chair of the social justice ministry at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, said in an interview, “Does our work solve all the problems in this city? No. But our work has made strangers feel welcome, it has given necessary food to the hungry, and most importantly, made God’s presence known to those our volunteers encounter.”
As the Bible study ended that morning at St. Matthew’s one of the homeless guests said, “Without here, I don’t know where I would have found breakfast today.”
“You feel at home when you come,” he said, adding that the Bible discussion “gives you encouragement to be strong.”
(See this series online, and related videos, at cathstan.org.)