When you feed the hungry, miracles occur. This is what happened to Jacob’s family when the land of Canaan suffered from famine, for God had prepared a divine solution through Joseph, Jacob’s son and God’s servant. This is what happened when Jesus fed the multitudes in Galilee, starting with a very modest packed lunch from a boy in the audience. And this is what continues to happen when the people of God answer the call to feed the hungry and are willing to roll up their sleeves and get involved. Through a three-part blog series, I will share with you about the ministries of Teusaquillo Mennonite Church in Bogotá, Colombia, and how this congregation’s willingness to get out in the streets and share with others has blessed all involved.
Feeding Street People
Some twelve years ago, two members of the Teusaquillo Mennonite Church in Bogotá, along with a friend of theirs, felt called to feed the homeless and make a statement about hunger and national priorities in Colombia. For, in spite of being in the tropics and enjoying all climates, plenty of water and land, as well as shores on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, hunger still abounds in this country, affecting more than 11% of the population.1
Jonathan Stucky, my son and one of these persons, met Cuzy Bargen, a young woman from Portland, Oregon, living in Bogotá, who with a few friends every Saturday afternoon made simple tamales in her apartment. This small group of friends would then take their homemade food to the streets to feed others. When it was time for this young woman to leave, she wondered who might continue this work of love. It was then that Jonathan and Teresa Hernandez, an older woman from the church, stepped up to carry on this simple but vital service. Attracted to this act of generosity, Bogotá resident Ron Frisk, a US Vietnam War peace activist, not affiliated with the church, approached the pastor with the idea of providing breakfasts for street people in the central plaza in front of the capitol building. Teresa donated about thirty dollars as seed money, and Ron donated a few more pesos—the Bogotá equivalent of five loaves and two fish. A ministry was born.
Soon, the ministry expanded and volunteers began cooking in the church kitchen, wrapping the rice and garbanzos in big leaves and taking about sixty each week into the streets to distribute. That was twelve years ago. Since then, almost every Saturday afternoon and night a group of about ten to twenty people gather at the church building and prepare around 200-300 meals, pack them up, and distribute them downtown in the skidrow area called the Cartucho, then later on to the Bronx.
This is an area where people from all walks of life end up as drug addicts, especially addicted to bazuco, an impure derivative of cocaine production. Addicts make a few pesos collecting and selling cardboard and other recyclable elements, and then spend their earnings on drugs. It’s an area where stolen goods flood the market, illegal weapons are bought and sold, where prostitution and flopouses are plentiful. Of course, since it’s in the center of Bogotá, there are also plenty of legitimate businesses nearby, as well as a Roman Catholic parish. Consequently, thousands of people travel through the area, hurrying about their business, indifferent to the many wrecked human lives around them. In the Bronx, as the skidrow sector is known, there are both ignorant and well educated people, Colombians from different areas of the country, foreigners, children, and the elderly. There are victims of poverty, victims of drugs, and victims of impotence. These people are even often called desechables, or ‘disposables.” Like trash thrown into the bin, these individuals are considered disposable. They don’t count. They don’t matter. They sometimes get murdered in the street while sleeping. Or if they’ve gotten picked up too often by the police for petty crime, they are carried off in the night in a process called limpieza social, which can be translated as “social cleansing” (like racial or ethnic cleansing in other societies). They just disappear.
When we go out into the streets and feed these people, they might seem physically or emotionally dead, but we can be sure that our Father in heaven, who sees even a sparrow fall out of the sky, intimately knows their stories. For when Jesus took on human form, he became one with even the least of these. Jesus lies out in the street with them, he’s hungry with them, and he is fed when they are fed.
On Saturday nights anywhere from eight to fifteen people form a circle at the church building, thanking God for this food and praying for those who will receive it. Crowds line up and receive the food from young people, women, and children, while the men call folks to supper, shake hands with the homeless, and bless them in the name of God, in turn being blessed themselves. We don’t preach to them, and we don’t try to operate a rehab program. Those things are good, but we simply bring hot meals, shake their hands, look them in the face, and bless them in the name of Jesus. The rest is up to God’s mercy.
Where does the money come from? That’s what is miraculous. How can a small church like Teusaquillo find financial resources to cook and distribute tens of thousands of meals over twelve years? The cooks, packers, and distributers are volunteers from the church, and, at times, visitors. But purchasing rice and vegetables and bags to pack the meals costs a considerable amount. The church’s budget covers some expenses, and occasional donations help out, but the fact is that, one way or another, the Saturday night Comedor Pan y Vida (the Bread and Life Feeding Program) operates with one little miracle after another to feed the hungry. It’s incredible. We don’t have fundraising campaigns, we don’t get government funds, we don’t even get donations from businesses—any of these would be welcome. But we just trust in the Father’s caring generosity and do what’s in our reach.
Some might think this is just charity work. But from the beginning we thought about the structural and justice connections of this ministry. As we thought and prayed, we formulated some guidelines for our feeding efforts which we state in the following twelve affirmations. In these you can see that we are not only wanting to feed the hungry, but also making a statement about hunger in our country. These affirmations remind us what we are about.
- Food is the right of every human being. God gives enough for everyone.
- There is sufficient food in the world for everyone. Every person should be able to eat.
- The image of God is in each person and must be protected.
- Feeding the hungry is not a matter of charity. It’s a matter of justice.
- The priorities of society are mistaken and must be corrected. More bread, fewer arms.
- A lasting peace requires people without hunger.
- Feeding others does not, in the first place, require money, but working together in community.
- Feeding others does not primarily require writing up projects; it requires decision.
- Giving food to the hungry with love and respect, transmits the love of God, points to Jesus as the Bread of Life, and is the mission of the church.
- Giving food requires reflection on land ownership, distribution of wealth, social structures, and what God wants for humankind.
- We give food to empower people to leave behind their prostration caused by economic and sociopolitical structures that keep them in that situation.
- The changes that must be made are political decisions made by human beings. Since things can be changed, keeping people hungry is a crime
Next week I will share with you all about the ministry of Pan y Paz, or “Bread and Peace,” a day on which Teusaquillo Mennonite Church commemorates with others the United Nations Day of Peace, Nonviolence and Ceasefire, as well as our now weekly gathering for prayer and lunch called Moment for Peace.
Read part 2 of the blog series here and part 3 here.
Peter Stucky is a pastor in the Iglesia Cristiana Menonita de Colombia.
1) “El hambre golpea a 11,4 por ciento de colombianos,” El Tiempo (September 16, 2014): accessed March 1, 2016, http://www.eltiempo.com/economia/indicadores/informe-sobre-el-hambre-en-colombia-/14545262).
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Thank you, Peter, for this beautiful story and the ongoing witness of the church!
A touch, a look in the eyes acknowledging our common humanity, a simple meal — being the Gospel!