The Hummel Spotlight: Mobile Loaves and Fishes

The truck is running 15 minutes late on this snowy Saturday in February, but those gathered at a park in Woonsocket never doubted it would arrive.

That’s because week-in and week-out, volunteers have come with food and clothes for those who need it the most. Social Park is the first of what will be four stops, along with a church a few blocks over, a women’s shelter near downtown and a housing project in the city’s north end.

“They know we’re coming. They’re waiting for us,” says Debbie Robertson, who coordinates the truck runs for her church, Barrington United Methodist. It has partnered with six other churches from Bristol to Providence to form the Rhode Island operation of a national program out of Texas that’s called Mobile Loaves and Fishes and was founded more than a decade ago. Barrington United Methodist Church, like most of its counterparts, covers three runs during its rotation: not only to Woonsocket on Saturdays, but to Burnside Park and several other locations in Providence on Sunday afternoons and Wednesday nights.

“You have this group of people that now you’re in a relationship with – they’re expecting you to be there,” said Pastor Andrew Simon of St. James Lutheran Church in Barrington, another participant. “They’ve come to expect the truck will show up at a certain time and they really need what we have on the truck and that’s really powerful. The landscape of the cities we visit changes after you’re involved with Mobile Loaves and Fishes and you start to look at places like Burnside Park or Kennedy Plaza in a different way.” The program has a basic formula, but each church has flexibility with the details.

At Barrington United Methodist, which we followed for its rotation last month, some of the 40 volunteers arrive to make sandwiches and organize food that will be distributed on site. One Saturday morning, volunteer Bob Sheldon made a huge pot of beef stew, which was kept warm in containers at the back of the truck, along with piping hot coffee and hot chocolate. On the other side were clothes and toiletries, some donated, some purchased.

Robertson estimates it costs about $200 a run, or $600 a month, for the church. They rely on donations and hold an annual fundraiser.
“We could bag up food and hand it to somebody and just go down the line and be out of there in half an hour,” Pastor Simon said. “But the relationship part of it is important. So instead of doing that, one-on-one we meet people at the truck and then we go through and ask them what they like. ‘Would you like a sandwich?’ or ‘What kind of sandwich would you like?’

“The heart of ministry is meeting people, sharing resources and going beyond the boundaries of these walls. There are things we can do with this truck and people we can meet that we’ll never meet just planning worship services or looking at budgets.” The stop at Morin Heights in Woonsocket, which draws mostly children, is perhaps the most poignant. “This one little girl on Saturday morning came, and her mom brought her, she had two girls,” Robertson recalled. “One girl had a really nice winter coat and the other one had a little hoodie. She didn’t even own a winter coat. And we said, `We’ve got a brand new one for you.’ So it had a coat and the mitten attached still and we put her in it and zipped her up. And her mother said, `That’s the first winter coat she’s ever had.’ And she was two and-a-half.”

“Some of these people who are wanting to pass what we have on the truck on to others are people who you know are hungry,” said Pastor Simon. “And I think that’s the spirit of giving and it’s not something that always comes through in the way homeless people or families with low incomes are portrayed in the mainstream media. We often hear that they’re there by choice or because they don’t want to work or because they’re lazy or because it’s easy to be in that position. You meet these people and it’s just not the case.”

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