Warning to my readers: This is not a typical post. So if you’re looking for pretty things you have to come back tomorrow. I promised my parents I would write this. And my son Michael who is as angry as I am about a program that we all care about.
Here it goes:
Last Tuesday night my Mom sent me a heartbreaking photo of my Dad and another volunteer sending people away hungry and unfed, from one of Sacramento’s most established and revered soup kitchens.
Because the new parish priest, Father Martin J. Ramat at St. Philomene’s Catholic Church has ordered that the kitchen be locked for the third straight week, a swift and callous decision that has left everyone involved, stunned.
That’s right. Hundreds of volunteers like my elderly parents, students from Jesuit High School and St. Francis and all the volunteers from public schools, local colleges and neighbors around the area who faithfully show up to serve a hot meal-- to an average of 500 hungry people each Tuesday are still showing up.
That’s how quick it’s all happened.
And even worse are those left hungry.
So tell me. How do you begin to get hold of people who ride their bikes because they don’t have cars? People who show up wearing smelly clothes and don’t carry cell phones? Families that use their precious gas money to drive all the way to the warm, brightly lit gym because they run short on money?
This is the outrage. There was no warning. There was absolutely no empathy shown by Father Martin for these people in need; he offered no short-term solution, no transition time for these folks before shockingly shutting the doors on a vital program that has fed over a million people in the last 30 years.
Poof. gone. just like that.
This is where my anger lies. It’s for the harsh, thoughtless, insensitivity toward people who don’t have a voice, who are vulnerable and struggling.
And it’s a sense of outrage about a decision made by a spiritual leader no less. Honestly, the more I hear, the more I can’t believe it.
“Jo-Jo,” one homeless man told my Mom last Tuesday. “We’re hungry. You have anything you can give us?”
And the first week they did. My Mom and some of the core volunteers made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and handed out granola bars, still believing that this was some aberration, that surely this new priest would change his mind and unlock the doors.
That he’d walk over from his landscaped Rectory five minutes away on a Tuesday night and realize the dazzling display of spiritual kindness and love taking place on his Church premises.
But no. Father Martin stays away on Tuesday nights.
Sadly, he doesn’t see the volunteers stand in a circle before each Tuesday dinner, bow their heads and hold hands while Jim, the Bounty leader gives instructions to treat each person walking in the door, like a “guest in your home.”
Father doesn’t know about the table on the right side of the gym where a group of developmentally disabled adults sit and eat and laugh because this is their big night out. He doesn’t know that the caretaker at their group home drives them faithfully over as a weekly treat, more for the nourishment of their spirits then their stomachs.
No, Father Martin is new to the community. And so he’s never seen the joy inside the old gym at Thanksgiving when this “Bounty” program serves record numbers of hungry families. He’s never talked to my Dad, who is in charge of the long lines of people waiting outside in the chilly weather. And so he doesn’t know that hot chocolate is offered to the kids in the cold, who are waiting excitedly for the only stuffing and turkey they’ll eat on this holiday.
And what’s even worse?
Father Martin has never seen Christmas. And the flood of excitement that happens when volunteers scurry around to create a special night, carving turkey, wrapping donated gifts, setting a station for the professional photographer, who shows up to take photos of giddy kids with a Spanish speaking Santa.
He has never witnessed the high school and college kids who were once former volunteers, suddenly show up with their guitars and music so they could get on stage and serenade the guests.
Nor has Father Martin heard the relief and laughter that fills the gym and the hum of a hundred whispered thank yous, floating into the air amid the tune of “Here comes Santa Claus”….
No. It’s obvious that this is one shepherd who doesn’t know his flock.
So now what?
This is what my parents want to know. This is what the high school kids want to know, what the hundreds of volunteers want to know.
What can we do when the priest won’t talk to you? When he instructs his secretary to let him know if his visitors are from the Bounty program so he can say the he’s “not available.”
Because this is exactly what happened when my parents and other volunteers went over to his office to talk with him. Even though he was there, he was “unavailable.”
He was also unavailable when the homeless guy on the bike went knocking on his door, but he was quite surprised by the mother. Because there’s nothing more powerful than a mother with three hungry kids.
Yes, according to my Mom a single mother showed up with her children and was distraught about the locked kitchen. But instead of going straight home she went to the Rectory to talk to Father. And when he stood at the door, she asked him,
“What would you do Father? If you had a child and you ran out of money to buy groceries? How would you feel?”
And after that incident there have been no more impromptu visits with this priest.
Because apparently Father is worried about “these people.” He has voiced concerns about his physical safety, made excuses about needles on the ground, and the wear and tear on the kitchen. And so he no longer wants to hear how his flock is ministering to the poor, especially when they look unsavory, when they’re dressed poorly and when they look like they have might have ‘issues.’
Father Martin doesn’t want to deal with these people who…..might actually look like a downtrodden Jesus. Instead, he and the new school Principal, want ‘Bounty’ out of their hair, sloughed off on someone else’s property, yuck to all those ‘scary’ people.
Oh, and those volunteers that our Pope Francis would value so dearly? Father Martin has actually accused them of bragging when they have tried to defend the importance of this program.
And so my question is this.
Do we really need another out of touch, hypocritical, authoritarian priest in our midst?
Really? Another one?!
As a cradle Catholic, I’m tired of the stories. I’m sick of seeing the disturbing disconnect between what is spoken in weekly sermons and what I actually see in real life situations.
Yes, I was told recently that priests are often following the Bishop’s orders. Well maybe.
But if that’s the case, then Bishop Soto needs to make a nice, long visit to St. Philomene’s gymnasium on a Tuesday evening and see how his flock is following Pope Francis’s words when the Pope says:
“Look, you can't speak of poverty without having experience with the poor. You can't speak of poverty in the abstract: that doesn't exist.”
I don’t know a whole lot. But I do know that each Tuesday night in that little gym there is nothing abstract that happens. No virtuous words are spoken, not one biblical quote is offered, yet something transformative happens. It’s people rubbing elbows with people and being kind. Some people call it grace.
All I know is that St. Philomene’s should not lose this program.
If you’re still reading this and
- If you’ve ever been hungry or experienced hardship, or
- If you’ve ever served at Bounty’s program, or
- if you’ve had a child who has gotten volunteer hours for school by participating on Tuesday evenings there, or
- If you’ve ever felt outraged by some other insensitive action by a parish priest…
Please take a moment and call or send an email to Bishop Soto’s office asking him to keep the Bounty program alive and well at St. Philomene’s.
Most Rev. Jaime Soto, Diocesan Bishop
It doesn’t matter where you live.
Because we’re all neighbors.