Saint Hilda's House

through the gates and into the city

'Lord, When Did We See You Hungry?': Working With Loaves and Fishes

By Will Oxford

Exodus 17: 1-6: The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?”  But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?” Then Moses cried out to the Lord, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel.

In modern Christian society it is quite typical to hear people say they are “hungry for God” or “thirsting for God.”  To quote a sermon I heard this past Sunday, however, “sometimes the children of God are just too hungry and thirsty to think about anything else besides food and water.”  If I learn anything this year from working at Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry, I hope it is the simple fact that, when people are hungry and thirsty in the wilderness, all other cares and concerns fall by the wayside and we have to meet those people where they are.

Loaves and Fishes has one of the richest traditions of Food Pantries in New Haven.  Every Saturday since 1982, rain or shine, holiday or not, anyone who wishes to can show up at 9am and receive a bag of food.  Loaves & Fishes offers one grocery bag of canned, non-perishable and fresh food every week, as well as a stocked clothing closet where guests can receive up to 15 items (depending on availability).  Each bag contains at least two proteins, carbohydrates, dairy sources, vegetables, and a starch.  Instead of offering empty calories, Loaves and Fishes places an emphasis on a healthy well balanced bag, typically full of fresh produce, whole grains, and frozen meat when available.  With the help of countless volunteers, Loaves and Fishes has now reached a point where it is able to give out on average around 300 bags of food per week.

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When I first told friends and family that I was moving to New Haven to do a year of service, more often than not I was faced with a quizzical expression and a series of questions.  “New Haven?  Isn’t that where Yale is?  That’s not the type of place I imagine a lot of service work needs to be done.”  Just like Durham, NC, (home of Duke University) New Haven is a city where the prestigious school at its center takes the focus away from the grittiness and condition of its actual residents.  Saint Hilda’s House is lucky enough to be nestled at the heart of downtown, right across the street from an Apple store and the Yale bookshop (which happens to double as a Barnes and Noble bookseller, complete with Starbucks café).  With all that said, if I or any of my housemates were to walk several blocks in any direction, we would be in neighborhoods and communities that would be called “sketchy” or perceived as dangerous places to find ourselves.  These neighborhoods, however, happen to be the places where we work, serving with a population that is sometimes seen as second class or undeserving of the city’s attention.  These are the places where, more often than not, I find it far more comfortable to be myself than on the quads or inside the buildings of Yale.

This is not least because of the inequality revealed by taking that walk down several blocks.  Connecticut is the richest state in the country when ranked by per capita income: I therefore find it incredibly disturbing that 1 out of 5 children in the state are hungry, that 80% of the children in New Haven are on free or reduced lunch programs, and that countless household have to choose between food, and paying their monthly utility bills.  This is why organizations like Loaves and Fishes, and the Community Soup Kitchen, operated out of Christ Church’s parish hall, are so significant to the people of New Haven. Despite the fact that organizations like these are still fitted with the title of “emergency” pantries or kitchens, there are residents who show up daily for what might be their only meal, or for whom a bag every Saturday morning amounts to their weekly grocery shopping.  It seems to me that there is a constant state of emergency for many in New Haven without access to food and nourishment.  

“Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?”  This question that Jesus uses in Mark’s Gospel has been weighing on me quite heavily so far this year.  The past three Saturdays, the first which I have spent my mornings working at the food pantry, have had their ups and downs.  Opening the doors and greeting people as they come in has been particularly rewarding, however.  I have had a chance to talk with the people we’re serving, to ask them how they are.  More likely than not, I've been blessed with a positive reaction to my presence, and though it is sometimes not, this is ok too, because I have no idea where the people I work with are coming from or what they’re going back to after they exit back through our doors.  

It is not my job to fix all of New Haven’s problems.  It is my job to make sure that anyone who shows up at 57 Olive Street from 9-10:30 on a Saturday morning will get a bag of food, have a safe environment to do so, get a smile at the door, and know that they are welcome.  For as Jesus tells us in the answer to his question, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

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