Observed from the outside it may seem to be nothing more than an otherwise familiar and perhaps even banal philanthropic engagement: feeding the homeless on the grounds of an urban church. But for Larry Garcia, pastor of Academia Church in Goodyear, it is an opportunity to embody the goodness and grace of God’s kingdom.
Just as Jesus sat down and ate with the personae non gratae of his day—tax collectors, sinners, women of questionable morals—so also Garcia and friends associated with his ministry have been getting together every Saturday afternoon in the gymnasium at Bible Baptist Church in Phoenix, which has agreed to make its centrally located facility available for weekly use.
But Garcia and friends don’t simply show up to feed the hungry; they sit and eat with them too. As Garcia told me, he’s not interested in evangelizing the homeless—many of whom are already Christians—nor in offering them advice about “fixing” their lives. Rather, he simply wants to show goodwill to those who, more often than not, may simply be passed by and ignored. It’s about stretching out a welcoming hand, showing a warm smile, and listening to whatever they may have to say, if they wish to say anything at all.
“Jesus calls us to love the poor,” Garcia says. “So this is in obedience to Jesus’ mission and call.”
But for Garcia, it has become something more. “A lot of people think that we’re doing something for them, but in many ways it rehumanizes us as well,” he says. “It works both ways: we help and we’re helped.”
One of the more impressive aspects of this meal ministry—which is simply referred to as HOPE—is the quality of food provided. Sometimes the HOPE team will prepare the meal on the spot, as the gymnasium is connected to a small kitchen. Other times, the meal is provided by one of several restaurants.
Unlike other meal programs, here you will find no bologna sandwiches on white bread with a squirt of mayonnaise. On the contrary, meals are hearty and attractive. And as long as there’s food left over, everyone can eat as much as they’d like.
On a recent Saturday, a meal of rice, beans, and enchiladas—with danishes and cookies for dessert—was provided by Popo’s Fiesta del Sol, a Mexican restaurant with locations in Maryvale and Glendale. On hand to help serve the meal was J.P. Jaramillo, whose family owns the business. His family plans to continue to support the ministry on a bimonthly basis. “My dad has been very supportive with providing the food and giving the group what they need,” he says.
Reid (who declined to give his last name) works for Bible Baptist Church and is present at every HOPE meal. He sets up the chairs and tables before everyone arrives, then takes them down when everyone leaves. Having gotten to know many homeless men and women over the years, Reid says it is actually remarkably easy to fall into homelessness, but very difficult to get reestablished again.
“Most people don’t realize that they are only two or three paychecks away from being homeless,” he says. “And it’s happened to these people.”
Some, after repeatedly trying and failing to get off the streets, eventually resign themselves to a lifetime of navigating what Reid calls the “randomly dangerous” life of a homeless person. It’s relatively easy for a homeless person to find meals here, Reid says, the harsh desert climate notwithstanding.
With a public transportation pass, which can be acquired through a number of service agencies, one can develop a routine of crisscrossing the city in time for free meals at various churches and nonprofits. Once a homeless person finds a job, however, he or she no longer has excess free time, but must nonetheless find a way to survive the first few weeks before the initial paycheck arrives.
Consider the conundrum: You have a job but no money. You are doing honest work, but in the meantime have no way of acquiring the necessities of life. And for obvious reasons you’d prefer your employer not find out that you’re homeless. You may have a place to bathe and keep your things on one side of town, but a job on the other side. What do you do if the bus schedule doesn’t cooperate with your third shift job? You might find a new place to sleep, risking showing up to work having not bathed for a day or two.
It’s not as easy to transition out of homelessness as one might think. Homelessness, after all, is a multifaceted phenomenon. Some simply lose a job suddenly and find themselves without a strong network of relationships. Some become homeless after being released from prison or after fleeing from a broken, dysfunctional home situation. Some find themselves on the streets due to drug or alcohol addictions.
While acknowledging the importance of organizations and agencies that are equipped to provide tangible services to help men and women work their way out of homelessness, for Garcia, relationships are the first step. “I much prefer just to eat dinner with them,” he says. “I might pick them up and take them to a nice, fancy restaurant. Or we’ll just hang out at my place.”
In Garcia’s experience, there’s no substitute for deep relationships—no matter who you are.
Those interested in getting involved in HOPE can learn more at Academia’s website.
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