You may have seen an announcement in the weekly “What’s Happening” or the Sunday bulletin: Share the joy of a meal and God’s love with the homeless at Holy Redeemer. Every fourth Friday of the month, volunteers from St. Gregory’s pack brown bag lunches and prepare hot evening meals that are served at Holy Redeemer Episcopal Church in Lake Worth.
St. Gregory’s has partnered with Holy Redeemer for more than 10 years now to provide these meals, so long that the monthly announcements about volunteering can be easy to overlook. But the need is as great as ever, says Rev. Jean Beniste, missionary priest-in-charge at Holy Redeemer.
“When I first came to Holy Redeemer, I remember seeing families with children that would come after school,” Fr. Jean says. “They would come and have that Friday meal. Most of the parents, they were homeless. Unfortunately, I am still seeing this in our community.”
Fr. Jean says the evening meal sponsored by St. Gregory’s offers a special respite for families who struggle all week to make ends meet. Guests at these dinners are usually neighborhood families, church families and the homeless. “I believe the meal on Friday is the best opportunity to help the families,” Fr. Jean said. “They can sit down around a table at the end of the week and have a meal. Every Friday, they have hope. They are saying, ‘We can come to Holy Redeemer and have a real meal, a good meal.’”
A nutritious, hot, tasty meal means more than many people might realize, Fr. Jean said. “Some of the people, they really do not have anything,” he said. “You can see the desperation. Some people have been waiting since 1 p.m. for the meal.”
The meals sponsored by St. Gregory’s are only part of Holy Redeemer’s food outreach to the poor. With help from other churches, ministries and nonprofits, Holy Redeemer provides lunch on other days and hot meals every Friday and on two Thursdays per month. The church also operates a food pantry. In all, Fr. Jean says, food is served at Holy Redeemer six days a week. This food is especially important for the congregation’s many impoverished children. “We are full of children at this congregation,” Fr. Jean says.
Despite the progress Holy Redeemer is making in the community, Fr. Jean has noticed a new need emerging: the homeless at home.
To illustrate this, Fr. Jean described a family he visited in their home not long ago. The father was very sick, but he had been hiding his illness on Sundays and when he was out in the community. He could not work and therefore could not provide any income for his children and wife. When Fr. Jean visited the family, he realized with shock how sick the man was. “He could have died any day,” Fr. Jean said.
The mother was working hard, doing whatever jobs she could find such as house cleaning. Despite the mother’s efforts, the family was essentially living hand to mouth, struggling each month to cover rent payments. The children attended school, but not with enough clothes or school supplies, and there was little money for medical treatment for the father. Fr. Jean says he could see the sadness in their faces and hear it in their voices. “She told me, ‘The only joy we have is when we go to the church.’ The family was suffering in silence,” Fr. Jean said.
Fr. Jean says many families in the congregation and in Holy Redeemer’s neighborhood are like this family: they are not living on the street and are technically not homeless, but they are still struggling immensely. These are the people Fr. Jean actively seeks out and invites to the dinners. “It is another layer at the church,” he said. “We see the homeless outside, but some of the people, they are struggling behind closed doors. This is a kind of homelessness at home.”
Poverty this extreme might make a less dedicated priest feel overwhelmed, but Fr. Jean believes God placed him at Holy Redeemer because he is a young priest, one full of the energy and enthusiasm required to meet the congregation’s many needs. He says Matthew 25: 40—“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me”—renews his strength and is “a light at the door” when he feels overcome.
Fr. Jean invites others to come to Holy Redeemer to feel God’s presence as he feels it every day. “Holy Redeemer is a place where we don’t just speak the Gospel, we live the Gospel,” he said. “I can try to offer people, those who volunteer, a place to experience God and listen to God. God called his Disciples to meet him on the mountain. Holy Redeemer is a mountain where God calls us to meet him. It’s a place to appreciate the voice of God and to response to those in need around us.”
That’s his special message to you: come volunteer at Holy Redeemer. Meet the people, listen to their stories, hear the voice of God speaking through them. You won’t be disappointed.
Fr. Jean is grateful for the support of St. Gregory’s and the partnership that has developed between the two congregations—and the people of Holy Redeemer are grateful as well.
“It’s good to hear when people give thanks to the volunteers. When I lead the prayer and give thanks to the church and all who are giving their time and what they have to help—they people are so grateful,” Fr. Jean said. “I want to thank the people of St. Gregory’s for all the support they provide. Let us keep together. We at Holy Redeemer pray for you every time we get together.”