By Sarah Riordan
June 5, 2009 – On one side of the long fold-out table stands a group of volunteers. On the other side stands a line of 300 people waiting to be fed. The two groups are separated by giant pots of stew, salad bowls, fresh fruit and bread, but they are joined by a common experience.
Mark Noriga, one of the volunteers dishing out soup, leans forward to greet those in need with handshakes and hugs. His friendly demeanor remains the same regardless of where he stands. He attributes his genuine friendliness to the fact that he has been on both sides of the table.
“I know what it’s like to fall on hard times. It was the volunteers at St. Matthew’s that brought me out of those times, that’s why I do it,” Noriga, 46, said. In his case, falling on hard times meant watching his wife suffer with cancer for three years.
“She was just 39 when we found out about the cancer. We did everything we could to fight it. We mortgaged our home to pay for chemo, but it wasn’t enough,” Noriga said.
At 41, Noriga’s wife died of leukemia in 2006.
“I was depressed, mad, alone and financially drained,” he said. “I stumbled into St. Matthew’s one day starving. They fed me body and soul, and now I try to do the same for others. Especially these days when it’s so greatly needed.”
St. Matthew’s, located in Pilsen at Hoyne and West 21st Street, like many soup kitchens and homeless organizations throughout the Chicago area, is seeing a drastic increase in the number of those in need. In the last six months, St. Matthew’s has gone from servicing 200 people to 350 according to Maria Lela, the program’s director. These numbers are consistent with those throughout the city, according to Jamie Stenesa, director of public relations at the Chicago Food Depository. This is the reason why more churches are looking to help out.
It is help that is needed now more than ever as Illinois lawmakers grapple with a nearly $12 billion budget gap. The temporary budget passed May 31 was only a stopgap measure that kept alive the possibility of across the board social service cuts.
The Chicago Food Depository could see even greater demand in the months ahead. It works as a central resource center for groups wanting to start their own pantries and shelters. In order to use the Depository’s resources, all groups must attend classes. Currently, the Depository helps over 600 groups in Chicago.
“We’ve seen a 33 percent increase in those requesting our services in less than a year,” Stenesa said. “These are hard times. We’ve had a lot more people come in asking to help out. Most of the time, they’re from churches. As far as we’re concerned, the more the merrier,” Stenesa said.
According to a report released this year by Housing Action Illinois, 71 percent of homeless shelters throughout the state of Illinois have seen up to a 10 percent increase in the number of those needing assistance.
“Those numbers don’t surprise me,” Stenesa said. “Those numbers fit everything we’re finding here.”
For Lela, who has been running the St. Matthew’s soup kitchen for nearly 20 years, the increase is both a positive and a negative.
“We love seeing new faces,” Lela said. “I love getting to share God’s love and message with new people. But the more people that come reflect the more people that are losing jobs. So though more come, fewer can donate to help us feed the people.” Lela said.
In the early days of the program, Lela funded it herself by catering meals along with two other ladies from the church.
“I have my culinary degree, so we started a catering company, and all the money we earned went to the soup kitchen. It worked at first, but now the program is bigger than three ladies,” Lela said.
As an experienced cook, Lela said she’s been offered other jobs over the years, but prefers volunteering.
“People need to eat, and here we try to feed them body and soul. Especially now, the number of people needing help is higher than ever, and so we try to do what God would have us do; feed his people,” Lela said.
A church is where servicing the poor should begin, according to the Rev. Stephen Hannon who currently serves as the circuit councilor for five Lutheran churches in the city and surrounding areas.
“The church should be the first place people go in times of hardship,” Hannon said. “Unfortunately, society now sees taking care of the poor and hungry as the government’s job. But historically, it’s been the church.”
According to a study conducted by the America Association of Retired Persons, church attendees made up the largest percentage of volunteers. The study showed that in a survey of volunteers throughout the nation, 86 percent of those who attended a religious service on a regular basis had done volunteer work.
For Noriga, it was church volunteers who saved his life.
“The volunteers here and this program at St. Matthew’s are and continue to be my savoir. After I lost my wife, I had no sense of who I was. Every time I came to eat here, the people talked to me and cared for me, and prayed with me. Slowly, my heart healed,” Noriga said.
Noriga, now a successful wedding planner, serves food to others who say they feel similarly about St. Matthew’s.
“I’ve been coming here since it opened. It’s nice to have a day off of worrying about feeding my family. My brother comes here to eat too. We get to have a meal together like people without a care, ” said Connie Hernandez, 58, a regular at St. Matthew’s soup kitchen.
“I also love to come and hear the prayers. They say them in Spanish and English, and I know both, so I get to hear them twice,” Hernandez said.
Rev. Julio Loza of St. Matthew’s says that though times are hard, churches are beginning to help out.
“We witness miracles everyday,” Loza said. “Somehow, with our funds getting smaller, we are still able to feed hundreds. Support from other churches keeps growing. It’s like the feeding of five thousand with the fish and the bread.”
One of those churches, Christ Lutheran Church in Orland Park, has recently made St. Matthew’s their project for their summer Vacation Bible School program.
“Our kids will bring an offering daily, and it will go to St. Matthew’s. We will also take the kids on a field trip here to help serve food. It’s a way to help out, and teach kids the value of service,” said Mary Lee Rauch, a member of Christ Lutheran.