by Jan Dixon
Special to The Leaven
OLATHE — The volunteers of St. Paul and St. John Paul II parishes here have been making and serving a hot lunch for their neighbors in Kansas City, Kansas, every fourth Friday of the month for years now.
Meatloaf, potatoes, green beans, fruit, bread and cookies have been the standard menu.
The dining guests have gathered in a bright and comfortable dining room at the Wilhelmina Gill Multi-Service Center — more commonly known as Saint Mary’s Food Kitchen — to enjoy a meal and spend time with their friends.
Between 250 and 400 lunches have been served seven days a week.
“We served 104,199 meals last year,” said Heidi Fox, who volunteers as the food kitchen manager seven days a week.
As the country began to grapple with the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic, the food kitchen staff and their volunteers were faced with a dilemma: how to keep themselves and others safe but still feed the hungry.
The work, said Father Michael Hermes, pastor of St. Paul Parish, is essential to what it means to be a Christian.
“It is a corporal work of mercy and has been a hallmark of being a follower of Christ from the first generation of believers,” he said. “They knew that charity done for the least of the flock, especially those who were hungry, was charity done for Christ.”
So, on March 17, the feeding of our neighbors continued, but changed to a “grab-and-go” model, with sack lunches distributed on the sidewalk outside the Wilhelmina Gill Multi-Service Center.
“We had to find a way to keep going. People need us,” said Fox.
And for the many parishes who regularly provide lunches to the food kitchen, this act of charity continues, albeit using as few pairs of hands as possible.
With food items donated or purchased, the menu changed to sandwiches, chips, fruit, cookies and bottled water — all bagged in lunch sacks.
“We had such a positive response in donations for the lunches from the parish,” said Ann Eckland, John Paul II Parish accountant. “It was a perfect opportunity for us to spread the love of Christ, even while safely at home. Three staff members met at the rectory to make the lunches.
Tom and Sandy Rockey, coordinators with Jim and Julie Bird, met in the St. Paul School kitchen. Wearing gloves and maintaining required social distance, they assembled sandwiches and packed bags.
“Together with JPII, we prepare enough to feed approximately 350 people with a few extras,” said Sandy Rockey.
And these lunches may be the only food our neighbors get.
“We have elderly clients with nowhere to go and no reserves. We have young families who live paycheck to paycheck and now have no job,” Fox said. “Harvesters and Meals on Wheels have been canceled in the area.”
Last Friday, the line waiting for lunches wrapped around the building. People using wheelchairs, walkers, crutches and strollers waited patiently at 6-foot intervals for their meal.
A total of 424 were served, including 49 children. Without backup services available, they were very grateful to have a sack lunch.
Father Hermes suggested we look to St. Charles Borromeo as an example at this difficult time. During the plague and famine of 1576 in Milan, Italy, St. Charles tried to feed 60,000 to 70,000 people daily. To do this, he had to borrow large sums of money.
While the civil authorities fled the city to avoid the plague, Father Hermes said, St. Charles stayed in Milan, where he ministered to the sick, the hungry and the dying.
“There is a need and it is up to us to fill it,” said Jim Bird.
Keeping the food kitchen open by providing sack lunches to our neighbors in need is nothing short of Catholic social teaching in action. Adhering to required guidelines for social distancing is protecting community health. St. Paul and John Paul II parishes, along with many others, are doing both.
“The distribution of sack lunches at the food kitchen by our Catholic faithful ranks as one of the greatest acts of charity we could be performing during a pandemic,” Father Hermes said.
Fox optimistically plans to continue the distribution of sack lunches for the foreseeable future and plans a happy reunion for all once life returns to normal.
“There will definitely be cake,” she promised.
And St. Charles Borromeo would be proud.