Friday, February 25, 2011

Franciscan Church Bells Ring for the Hungry & Homeless

This morning I brought three coffeecakes and two jugs of orange juice to St. Boniface Church in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, joining a dozen other volunteers from my parish of St. Ignatius (on the USF campus) to serve breakfast to about 30 homeless men and women. There were hot coffee and chocolate, three kinds of juice, hot baked egg-and-sausage casserole, a spiral-slice ham, muffins, croissants, tangerines and little apples--and every bite  was gone within an hour. We set up the breakfast room quickly, a basement meeting room with linoleum floors, low ceilings and battered tables and chairs, and at precisely 7:00 am, the bells of St. Boniface, a Franciscan-run parish, rang out solemnly through the pouring, cold rain--and our guests came across the courtyard from the church to the breakfast room.

(The photos show St. Boniface (on the left) after the 1906 earthquake and fire, and then restored a few years later. It was established in 1860 as a German-Catholic parish run by the Franciscan friars and priests.)

It was my first time volunteering, so I observed at first what went on. Some volunteers served up the food in the line, others brought hot coffee or chocolate to wet, shivering men as they made their way to a chair to sit down and rest before getting breakfast. Others grabbed a muffin or a cup of coffee and sat down at the tables to join the guests and serve as an attentive, sympathetic ear to their stories of life on the streets. One old man, Jack, was shivering so violently as he came in that he could hardly walk, and the woman in charge quickly ran off to get a blanket, then wrapped it around his shoulders and helped him to a seat. I asked Jack if I could get him some breakfast, he nodded, and I came back shortly with a plate heaped with hot eggs, sausages, coffeecake and ham, then sat down across from him and next to another man named Ron. At first I couldn't understand anything Jack said but as he warmed up (literally), his speech became clearer. He was a Vietnam vet; he wouldn't stay in shelters because they were "too dangerous" (Ron backed this up with an emphatic echo "too DANGERous"), but thought he might go up to the VA hospital later in the day where they might take him in for the weekend. He'd spent the night outside--the last five nights actually--as had Ron. This has been one of the coldest weeks we've had here for a while, and there is the expectation of snow and very low temperatures tonight and over the weekend.

But it wasn't all grimness and desperation--these men are surprisingly good-humored, resilient and courageous. Ron and I got to talking about the "best music" ever, which we agreed was the late 60's, early '70s (of course). Jack told me he was 61 this year and was amazed when I told him I was the same age. "You look pretty good for 61" he said, and almost winked at me. "If I'd known you when I was young, I would have married you!"

The room was clearing out, and Jack had pretty much stopped shivering. All the breakfast guests are invited by the Franciscans to sleep in the church on the pews during the day, Mondays through Fridays (when the shelters are all closed), so that's where Jack and Ron and all the others were headed. I asked Jack if he was going to try to get to the VA today (it's clear across town, out near the ocean on the way to the Golden Gate Bridge) and how he would get there; he said he would probably have the church call an ambulance to take him--he'd done it before. I wished him well, and said "God bless you." 

Then I got in my car and drove home through the wind and the rain, wishing there was more I could do to help. I know, at least, I'll go back to St. Boniface next month. 

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