In a well-known passage from the Christian Bible, Jesus feeds 5,000 hungry people on five loaves of bread and two fish. It's the story of a miracle and a compassionate Messiah who is able to fulfill the needs of his people. Some also see it as a message that no matter how little you may have to give, you always have more than the needy, the hungry and the poor.
On the fourth Thursday of every month for the past 25 years, St. Thomas volunteers have prepared and served meals in the spirit of this story. In a partnership with Loaves and Fishes, a nonprofit, volunteer-driven agency that serves nutritious meals to the Twin Cities' hungry, St. Thomas has fed 250 people a month at dinners held at Faith Lutheran Church in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul.
Volunteer "cooks" arrive shortly before 2 p.m. to help unload the food, set up the chairs and tables and prepare the meal, which includes making sandwiches, baking cookies and concocting the hot dish. They usually finish between 3:30 and 4 p.m., depending on the number of volunteers who show up. Servers arrive by 5:15 p.m. for the 5:30 dinner and typically work until about 7 p.m
While St. Thomas uses more than five loaves of bread – 24 to be exact – and a few more ingredients in place of two fish (five pounds each of onions, butter and peanut butter, 20 pounds of ground beef, 30 pounds of tater tots, one gallon of ketchup, 40 pounds of green beans, 500 ounces each of cream of celery and cream of mushroom soups, 20 pounds of carrots, 480 cookies and 250 cutlery kits), the school is performing its own kind of miracle.
Craig Marcott, associate professor of economics in the College of Arts and Sciences, brought the program – and his church's tater tot casserole recipe – to St. Thomas 25 years go (with instrumental support from then-provost of St. Thomas, Dr. Charlie Keffer).
"I was doing Loaves and Fishes with my church at the time (at the Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul) and I thought it would be a great way to serve God's people in need and build community here at St. Thomas. I thought it worked particularly well for us because it included the full range of our community: students, faculty, staff and alumni."
Marcott swears he encountered a small miracle once after a dinner years ago:
"I was particularly frazzled with the demands of my teaching, research, two babies and Loaves and Fishes when I had an encounter with a guest at Faith Lutheran. He was there for a meal but came into the kitchen to do some dishes with me. We talked a bit. I thanked him, and I told him we were there to serve him and that he did not need to help in the kitchen. He told me how much the meal meant to him and others and that he just wanted to help. We talked some more, I felt much better, and he slipped away. Well, you can take this any way you want, but I will go to my grave believing that this was an encounter with Christ."
Jim Winterer, who works in University Relations at St. Thomas and has been a server for "a number of years," counts his interaction with the diners as a big draw to donning a hair net, apron and latex gloves to help out each month: "The part I like best is getting to know the people who come to eat. You need to be very respectful, ask permission to sit with them, go slow, let them talk, don’t dominate the conversation, and sometimes be willing to just sit with them and not say anything at all."
He added, "Some are old and maybe lonely, and it's nice for them to get out of the house and have a solid meal and some company and camaraderie."
Gerry Sowada, system support manager for finance and administration at St. Thomas, said he enjoys meeting other people from the St. Thomas community that he wouldn't normally have the chance to meet. "It’s a fun time and a good experience. It’s only a couple hours of your time, and it’s nice to do something unselfish and just help people out."
A volunteer since 1992, he has built up a large memory bank of serving at Loaves and Fishes: "A few years someone donated a bunch of Christmas trees, which we gave away in a raffle, and another year a company donated turkey dinners in boxes that the diners were able to take home with them. It's great to see others get involved around the holidays."
He said he also remembers the children.
"I also like seeing different people, but I was surprised by how many kids there are. I was thinking homeless means more adults, but I would say at least a third were kids."
Though Betty Drucker retired as office manager of the Psychology Department nine years ago, she continues to volunteer most months.
"My first day volunteering was Dec. 28, 1995, and I was hooked from the first time. I continue to come back because we're always needed."
Her first grandchild born that year, Drucker remembers, "It was so emotional seeing all these little kids without their parents with them."
Her task that first day was to man two tables filled solely with children.
"I remember in particular there was a big brother, maybe 8 years old, who brought his two smaller siblings to dinner without their parents. I heard him telling them to hurry up, so I went over there and told him to slow down and let them eat. Then I turned to the one little girl and told her, "tuck that little apple in your pocket and eat it when you get home."
The menu hasn't changed much over the years: tater tot hot dish, carrots, butter or peanut butter sandwiches, chocolate chip cookies, milk and applesauce. Winterer noted that there used to be apples, but many of the diners don't have enough teeth to eat them, so they were replaced with applesauce.
Drucker, Marcott, Sowada and Winterer all noted that they are almost always thanked, which they don't expect.
Said Winterer, "You think, 'I'm hardly doing anything here, and they're thanking me.'"
In 2011, 352,000 meals were served at Loaves and Fishes' nine Twin Cities' sites.
If you're interested in joining St. Thomas in service to Loaves and Fishes, contact Pat Sirek, assistant to the president.