Setting an extra plate for Jesus at dinner

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A family receives food and frozen “Plates for Christ” meals from Catholic Charities’ food pantry in Atlantic City. Photo by Joanna Garnder
A family receives food and frozen “Plates for Christ” meals from Catholic Charities’ food pantry in Atlantic City.
Photo by Joanna Garnder

Encountering Mercy: Give Drink to the Thirsty

“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 April, the Diocese of Camden focuses on “Give Drink to the Thirsty.” This month’s profiles highlight examples of those who live out that corporal work of mercy in their daily lives.

James Letts spent last winter living out of a room in one of the many motels that line the mainland roads and highways in Cape May County. He was evicted from the apartment he shared with his son, a disabled veteran who served in the Iraq War, just after Thanksgiving.

Letts is a veteran himself. He served three years in the Army, one of them spent guarding the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. He owned his own painting business, but when his truck broke down for good, he didn’t have the capital to replace it. Not long after, he got his eviction notice.

Living out of motels is a common option for those who are down on their luck in Cape May County. The county, which sees a seasonal spike in unemployment (in the summer of 2015 the unemployment rate was 7 percent; by February this year it had jumped to 18 percent), has no homeless shelter and a dearth of affordable housing options.

Those who qualify for housing vouchers through the Board of Social Services can redeem them at the motels, one of only a few options that the vouchers, at $50 per night for a single individual or $1,200 per month, can cover.

This means that some families live for months at a time without access to a kitchen. In Letts’ case, as in many others, he had only a freezer in his room and access to a microwave in the lobby.

“I’m not one to ask for help,” Letts said. “But when you’re hungry, you’re hungry.”

One day he stumbled upon Catholic Charities’ center in Rio Grande. He walked in explaining that he needed food and walked out with enough frozen, homemade dinners to last the next few days.

The program is called “Plates for Jesus” and it is supported through the generosity of a growing number of parishes who donate the individual frozen dinners.

The homemade, nutritious meals are a big improvement on the canned or processed foods that are many times the only things food pantries have to give.

“I survived on those meals,” Letts said. “Not only are you eating, but you’re eating a healthy meal. When you don’t eat well you don’t feel well, and it shows in your interviews, it shows in your work. Things have a snowball effect.”

At the time of the interview, Letts had recently landed a job and was looking forward to getting back on his feet.

“I keep moving forward one day at a time,” Letts said. “I got the job, I’ll get the apartment, I’ll get a new vehicle, then I’ll be on my way. I’ll get there. I’ll get there by the grace of God, taking it one day at a time and eating healthy.”

The Parish of St. John Neumann in North Cape May kicked off its Plates for Jesus ministry last March. It makes available plastic, microwavable, divided meal containers for parishioners to take with them after Mass. Families are invited to set an extra plate for Jesus at dinner, filling the container with whatever they’re eating that night. The plates are then dropped off to the parish, which stores them in freezers and then delivers them to Catholic Charities for distribution.

Since the program started in March, 2015, the parish has delivered 1,450 plates.

Other parishes in the area are also getting on board. Saint Brendan the Navigator Parish in Avalon and Stone Harbor started its own ministry in February and has already delivered 130 meals.

Our Lady Star of the Sea Parish in Cape May put their own spin on the program, inaugurating “Simply Soup Star of the Sea” in October 2015. Each month, the parish donates 100 individual homemade soups, complete with cracker packets.

“Having a meal represents normalcy. That means so much when you’re living in a motel,” said Cheryl King, coordinator of Catholic Charities’ Cape May County Family and Community Services Center.

The program found its original inspiration, however, more than 30 years ago a bit further up the Jersey shoreline. Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Absecon started its “Plates for Christ” program in 1985.

During Lent that year, the parish’s social action committee was inspired by the words of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel, just before the miracle of the loaves and fishes: “Feed them yourselves” (Mark 6:37).

“That’s how it all started, when we read from Mark’s Gospel,” said Jim Davis, the current chairperson of the program. “We tried to figure out how to do that.”

What began as a Lenten program soon grew to a year-round ministry. The parish has invested in two freezers over the years to hold the donated meals. As they fill, volunteers deliver the plates to Catholic Charities’ center in Atlantic City.

Davis estimates that the parish receives at least 50 meals from parishioners every week, which comes to some 2,600 per year, but that doesn’t include the surge every Lent, when the ministry is especially promoted. He remembers years when the parish collected over 1,000 plates during Lent alone. While most go to Catholic Charities for distribution, some stay at the parish for those who live in the motels nearby.

“The response of the people makes it work,” Davis said. “If it wasn’t for the generosity of the people of our parish we wouldn’t be able to do it.”

For Letts, that generosity has multiplied. Not long after speaking with the Catholic Star Herald, Letts moved into his own apartment, with the help of Catholic Charities’ Veteran Services program. He now works full time. King, who provided him with his meals when he stopped by the Rio Grande office, said he hasn’t needed them lately: “I don’t think we’ll be seeing as much of him anymore.”

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The Mercy of giving drink to the thirsty

Pope Francis has demonstrated a knack for story-telling and relating his teaching to the ordinary lives of people. He told the following story during a Wednesday general audience in St. Peter’s Square on Sept. 10, 2014.

“Mother Church teaches us to give food and drink to those who are hungry and thirsty, to clothe those who are naked. And how does she do this? She does it through the example of so many saints, men and women, who did this in an exemplary fashion; but she does it also through the example of so many dads and mamas, who teach their children that what we have extra is for those who lack the basic necessities. …

“A mother once told me…that she wanted to teach this to her children… She had three. And one day at lunch — the dad was out working, she was there with her three young children, 7, 5 and 4 years old, more or less — and there came a knock at the door. There was a man who asked for something to eat. And the mama told him: ‘Wait a moment.’ She went back inside and told her children: ‘There’s a man there asking for something to eat. What can we do?’ ‘Let’s give him something, Mama, let’s give him something!’ Each of them had a beefsteak and fried potatoes on their plate. ‘Very well’ — the mother said — ‘let’s take half from each of you, and we’ll give him half of the beefsteak from each of you.’ ‘Oh, no, Mom, that’s not right!’ ‘That’s how it is, you have to give some of yours’ And this is how this mom taught her children to give food from their own plate.”