Soup Kitchen Nourishes Body And Soul
Dorothy's Place/Franciscan Workers
Thursday, December 2, 1999
30 Soledad St./Salinas/424-1102
715 Jefferson St./Salinas/757-3838
Annual Budget: $300,000
($50,000 for food)
There''s no reason why you would go to Soledad Street. No reason, unless you''re one of the 2,900 men and women who find themselves homeless in Monterey County on any given night.
This bleak, windswept street in Salinas'' industrial section sprouts a few ramshackle buildings--a pool hall, a rundown nightclub, the Victory Mission--a couple of empty lots, and a constant stream of unkempt people who wander back and forth, back and forth, up and down the street, day after day after hungry, cold, lonely day.
But, round about one o''clock each afternoon, a large crowd congregates outside No. 30. That''s the home of Dorothy''s Place, a remarkable institution that has been serving up free, hot lunches to the poor and homeless every day for 18 years. No charge, no obligation, no discrimination. Just a hot meal and a warm hello.
The fact that Dorothy''s Place exists, and has just served up its 1 millionth meal, is due to the compassion and dedication of Liz and Robert Smith. In 1982, as new converts to Catholicism, they were inspired by the activist teachings of St. Francis and of Catholic Workers'' Movement founder Dorothy Day, who served the poor of New York City from 1933 until her death in 1980. "For us," says Robert, "the Gospel boils down to Matthew 25, ''For I was hungry and you fed me''."
Casting about for a way to realize their newfound faith, the Smiths focused on the homeless people on Soledad Street, people who Liz remembered her father bringing home for dinner now and then when she was a little girl. The Smiths saw a need and stepped in to fill it. One day in 1982, they made up 65 egg-salad sandwiches, loaded them into the back of their car, set up a card table on Soledad Street with a sign reading "free sandwiches," and started handing out lunch.
It took them two-and-a-half hours to give away those 65 sandwiches, Robert recalls. Today, in the building obtained with city money three years ago, they feed 100 to 150 people for lunch every day, and 50 more for breakfast.
Lunch on this particular day is chili, cole-slaw, homemade corn bread, apples, and more. In the kitchen, eight volunteer workers are busily wrapping up peanut butter-and-jelly and tuna fish sandwiches for those--mostly poor families with young children--who prefer to take the meals home to eat. The volunteer food preparers are former and current clients, Robert explains--people who know what it means to go hungry.
The food they serve comes from many sources. Churches, synagogues, and local companies make in-kind donations. People in the community might bake a few loaves of bread to bring by. Other food is bought, at the lowest price possible. Even still, says Robert, "We''re still $40,000 in debt."
"It''s excellent food," says Brent Daniel, a man who has been eating regularly at Dorothy''s Place for the past seven years. "It''s very much a blessing to come down here daily to eat. These people have helped out so much."
For the Smiths, the blessings are what come back to them when they service the poor. Asked about the food and clothing they bring to farmworker families living in two South County migrant camps, Robert inverts the question. "We bring them food and clothing as an excuse to receive the blessing of being invited into their homes."
As he talks, the sincerity shines quietly out of his eyes, blinking softly behind round, tortoise-shell glasses. He wears a khaki shirt, trousers, sandals, and a black baseball cap with the word "dream" imprinted in English and Japanese. A simple Jerusalem Cross of olive wood hangs on a black cord around his neck. "We treat people with respect and dignity," he says, "to honor the sacredness of their humanity."
Robert and Liz''s work goes beyond Dorothy''s Place. They helped create and are now part of the Franciscan Workers, a nonprofit Basic Christian community of eight people formed out of the core group of volunteers at Dorothy''s. Community members live simply, sharing resources, taking home between $200 and $500 a month. The concept is based on liberation theology, Robert explains, which developed in Latin America during the 1960s and ''70s. "You form a root community of faith, from which to institute change."
"It''s about affirming, it''s about loving," Robert says of the group''s work philosophy. "It''s about handshakes and hugs and building self-esteem, trying to inspire visions and dreams."
At Dorothy''s, every hungry person is served, Robert says, "as if they were Jesus, the president, Buddha, the Dalai Lama, whoever is the most important person you can imagine."
The group''s projects, aside from Dorothy''s Place, center on three farmworker camps--two near Soledad and one near Gonzales--where they tutor children, bring supplies, and take families on outings.
In addition to daily meals, Dorothy''s Place provides a safe haven for local street homeless. They gather in the community room before lunch to watch television. They drop by on Friday evenings every other month for "open-mic" night. "We sing songs, read poetry, tell corny jokes," Robert says.
"For a lot of people, even if they have a corner of the street, under a tree, or an apartment to sleep in, Dorothy''s Place is home."
Dorothy''s place serves a hot lunch every day at 1pm. For information, or to send donations, call 757-3838.