Encountering Mercy: Feed the Hungry
“Encountering Mercy” is a series exploring the corporal works of mercy during the Jubilee Year through the lens of the people whose lives exemplify them. In March, the Diocese of Camden focuses on “Feed the Hungry.” This month’s profiles highlight examples of those who experience this corporal work of mercy in their daily lives.
The Fisher family is no stranger to troubles. Michael and Wanda Fisher’s second child, Michael Junior, was born with a rare birth defect called congenital diaphragmatic hernia, which affects the formation of the lungs. He was born with only 34 percent of his left lung and a less than 1 percent chance of survival.
Wanda quit her job running a day care to look after him. He went on to defy all odds with the help of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Today, the sophomore in high school even participates in the school marching band as a bass drum player.
But the family’s biggest troubles were yet to come. In 2012, Michael Senior suffered two strokes in the span of two weeks. He had worked as a cook at the same diner for over 30 years, rising to become head cook. But after the strokes, Michael experienced memory loss, some speech challenges and weakness on one side of his body.
“Working in a diner, the orders come really fast and I couldn’t think that fast anymore,” Michael said. “One day my boss came over and said, ‘That’s all right, why don’t you just come over here and make the sandwiches.’ That did something to me. I used to work 15, 16 hour days, seven days a week.”
A year later he suffered a third stroke.
“That was when they decided to take him completely off work,” Wanda said.
The family saw a huge cut to their income almost overnight. To stay in their home of 24 years, they’ve had to adopt an extremely tight budget. It’s been a difficult transition for Michael, who was always able to provide for his family.
“When I was working, I didn’t have to ask anybody for help. I provided everything for the family,” Michael said. “Sometimes I get frustrated because I can’t do for my kids what I used to do. There’s nothing to do except pray about it.”
Last fall, the family’s car broke down and their electric bill went up. They began to fall behind on their mortgage payments and other bills.
A friend suggested the family call 2-1-1, New Jersey’s social services hotline, and they were referred to Catholic Charities. Michael is an Army veteran and so the agency’s Veteran Services program, Ready, Vet, Go, worked with them to help with a mortgage payment, an electric bill and the car repairs. Around Thanksgiving, the family received a food basket for the holiday.
The challenges of living on a fixed income
For many families on a fixed income, even a slight change to their finances can send them into crisis. For many of these families, often the first thing cut from an already tight budget is food.
Lauren Monahan is a senior case manager at Catholic Charities’ Gloucester County Family and Community Services Center. She runs the center’s food pantry and coordinated the Thanksgiving food baskets last year. Families like the Fishers are all too common among the regular patrons of the pantry, she says.
“We’re seeing more and more families — from all income levels — that are struggling with the choice of whether to feed their kids or heat the house, pay the bills. They’re having to ask themselves, ‘Do you want electric this month or do you want food in your belly?’” Monahan said.
“In many of these fixed income families there really isn’t room for any error at all. Maybe there’s a slight increase to the price of their medication, or they have to go out and get a pair of shoes for their child. Now there’s not enough money for food.”
According to the national hunger relief organization Feeding America, one in six people in the Diocese of Camden faces food insecurity — a lack of reliable access to food — including one in five children. That’s more than 195,000 people total in the six counties that comprise the diocese.
Catholic Charities’ food pantries serve over 5,000 people a year in the Diocese of Camden. At most of the pantries, clients make appointments to receive food and can come on a regular basis, such as once every week or month, as determined by the pantry. On special occasions, like Thanksgiving, the pantries expand to include families being served by other Catholic Charities’ programs.
“We always need food,” Monahan said. “Especially during this time of year, our shelves get pretty bare. For the families we serve at the pantry, along with the other food pantries around the county, we’re often their saving grace.”
The Gloucester County center also provides rent and utilities assistance in addition to the pantry and is home to the Ready, Vet, Go case managers that assisted the Fisher family. The veterans program serves some 350 veterans who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless per year, and operates in all six counties of the diocese.
With the help of Catholic Charities, the Fisher family weathered one of the storms that comes with a fixed income. The family was able to stay in their home and Wanda can continue to focus on caring for Michael Junior’s health and helping him succeed.
Michael Senior had a name for the caseworkers who helped get his family through that particular time of trouble.
“Guardian Angels,” he said. “That’s the best way I can describe them.”
This Sunday, March 6, is the diocesan-wide FaithFULL food drive. Donations of food can be brought to parishes this Sunday or to one of the six drop-off sites throughout the Diocese. To learn more go to www.CamdenDiocese.org/FaithFULL-Food-Drive.
If you or someone you know is a veteran in need of help, call Catholic Charities: 856-342-4113. Find a listing of Catholic Charities food pantries at www.CatholicCharitiesCamden.org/BasicNeeds.
The mercy of feeding the hungry
The following is taken from Pope Benedict XVI’s Angelus message on Nov. 12, 2006. The pope traditionally offers the Angelus prayer and a brief reflection on Sundays at noon from his window overlooking Saint Peter’s Square. Pope Benedict’s short message on this occasion offered a reflection on hunger on the day Italy celebrates its annual Day of Thanksgiving.
“In our Christian families, children are taught to always thank the Lord prior to eating with a short prayer and the Sign of the Cross. This custom should be preserved or rediscovered, for it teaches people not to take their ‘daily bread’ for granted but to recognize it as a gift of Providence. …
“Jesus taught his disciples to pray by asking the Heavenly Father not for ‘my’ but for ‘our’ daily bread. Thus, he desired every person to feel co-responsible for his brothers so that no one would want for what he needs in order to live. The earth’s produce forms a gift which God has destined ‘for the entire human family.’
“…Every person and every family can and must do something to alleviate hunger in the world by adopting a lifestyle and consumption compatible with the safeguarding of creation and with criteria of justice for those who cultivate the land in every country.”