THIS IS THE SUMMER I learned that following the admonishment of both Jesus Christ and Ronald Reagan -- to go, thou, and feed the hungry -- involves headaches about which St. Francis never knew.
I was part of a group that fed the hungry of Foggy Bottom this summer. By the time we stopped we had alienated our neighbors, tired the police, and burned ourselves out.
Those who think it's easy to reorder our national priorities, please take note.
On Thursday evenings, I would leave my comfortable office near Dupont Circle to join other parishioners from St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Foggy Bottom to make and then serve dinner from the church's steps to Washington's street people.
The first night I learned the secret of making 100 sandwiches, fast. Then I tried to stay in the background when the doors opened. I really did not want to meet the people in the line. I was slightly afraid of them and embarrassed by my relative affluence. But I kept coming back.
As Thursday evenings came and went, I learned that many of our guests were just as embarrassed as I was. They became individuals with names, histories and personalities. Some were eminently likeable, others unreachable. They were not too different from the people I could have encountered in the line of any fast-food restaurant in town. Their need was just more obvious and their choice limited to what we could provide.
In coming to know them, I became able to acknowledge that if my father had been alive and living in Washington this summer, he could have been one of the people I was serving. I acknowledged how my mother's need for charity during my childhood affected me and my struggle for upward mobility. It became harder to turn away from the panhandlers in Dupont Circle.
Those Thursday evenings did not make me an expert on the problems of hunger and poverty or bless me with magical answers for the street people. They did open my eyes to the difficulties of that task. If St. Francis was our model, the organizational skills of Burger King became our collective need.
Foggy Bottom is not the place you would expect to find a soup kitchen. It's home to the Kennedy Center, Watergate and the nouvelle cuisine of Jean Louis. Its tiny rowhouses, once home to freed slaves and the working class, now sell for six-figure prices. And, if you only knew St. Paul's by its reputation -- parishioners who are mainly white, well-educated and prosperous -- you might not expect it to be running a soup kitchen for the "grate people."
St. Paul's feeding program started in the winter of 1981, when a parishioner read about the deaths of two men who were living on the city's grates. He decided something needed to be done to reach those people. So every night for three months, he went out carrying a thermos of soup and sandwiches. He offered food and conversation to the eight to 15 people living on the grates close to the State Department. Near the end of the winter, the curate and some other parishioners joined him on his rounds.
At the beginning of last winter, the curate and the parishioner pulled together a small group and expanded the effort. Three or four people would meet at the church each evening to fix food and go out to the grates. They passed out soup and sandwiches and talked to the people others ignored. Two other church members got up each morning to do breakfast, going from grate to grate as far as the Justice department.
In January, during the coldest weeks of the winter, the church's Parish Hall became an overnight shelter for some of the grate people. Parishioners donated food, money and cigarettes. They fixed meals, talked to the people and stayed overnight in the shelter with them. After six weeks, when the weather got warmer and the volunteers were beginning to suffer from burnout, the shelter was closed.
The grate patrol continued to feed the people who chose to stay on the streets. They stopped only after they discovered the Salvation Army following them from grate to grate, also passing out food.
The question then became, what would happen to the grate people when the obvious emergency of bitterly cold weather was over?
The hunger committee decided they could not assume that the people on the grates would find food. Borrowing from a program operated by the Franciscans in New York City, the committee opened a sandwich line from the Parish Hall on Friday evening, March 26. That night they served five people. The menu was also borrowed from the Franciscans: two sandwiches, something to drink and a piece of fruit.
By the end of April, an average of 32 people were being served each night. During May the number grew to 43. In June, it was 64. In July, 100. In August, 120. On the night the program closed, each of 140 people had been served two hot dogs, a 16-ounce styrofoam cup of instant iced tea and a banana.
Why did the program close? The reason was not financial. Members of the parish had come to the committee's aid with money, food and hundreds of hours of volunteer time. It closed because we had become victims of our own success.
The number of people we attracted had become a major problem. We never thought we would feed more than 50 people a night. As any McDonald's manager could have told us, there is a considerable differnce between making and serving 43 and 120.
In the first two months, we were able to rely on the generosity of two local food stores, Hudson Brothers in Georgetown and the neighborhood Federal Supermarket, to supplement the food we bought. In August, we had to turn to a wholesale food supplier for the 20 dozen hot dogs and buns we used each night. In May, a volunteer could take the time to turn donated potatoes into potato soup. In August, we were lucky to get everyone fed between the time the doors opened at 7 and closed at 8. Without planning to do so, we had become a fast-food restaurant.
The crush of people meant that we could not reach out to individuals to find out who they were and what had brought them to our doors. There was no chance to do the personal ministry that had been part of the grate patrol and the shelter.
We also had some unrealistic expectations about who would be on the other end of the hot dog.
We expected middle-class manners and behavior. While we did meet gentle, polite, unassuming people who said "please" and "thank you," we also met angry, hostile, rude people.
Our guests were not tidy, either. We could not confine them or their problems to either the church property or the hours of the feeding program. St. Paul's became a hangout for some of them and our neighbors were not pleased. Nor should they have been. All of the lights in a nearby apartment parking garage were broken by part of our crowd that took cover there during a thunderstorm. People were followed to their doors.
The church itself was not spared. The sanctuary was desecrated when someone defecated in a pew. A fire started in the alms box when someone struck a match in it to see how much money was there. The after- church coffee and doughnut hour was raided on Sunday by 15 street people who carried away boxes of doughnuts.
We had expected to feed the people who lived on the grates and park benches of Foggy Bottom or in the doorways of Georgetown, essentially the same people we had fed during the winter. Instead, we fed people who drove from across town and even people from out of town here for the 4th of July marijuana "smoke-in."
And the people we fed weren't just hungry. More than a few had major social and psychological problems. Ten years ago, they would have been in-patients at St. Elizabeths. They clearly could not cope with the competitive world they found themselves in and they had nowhere to go but St. Paul's. Others showed up high on drugs and cheap liquor. One even favored a combination of Listerine and grain alcohol.
Beyond the numbers and the organizational problems, the principal catalyst for closing was violence and the threat of violence. There were fights on our sidewalk. Our only solution was to call the police and they became as tired of answering our calls as we became of making them. A broken window shattered the last of our idealism. One of our guests, demanding more hot dogs, had pounded on it until it broke.
We chose not to use muscle but calm discussion to solve the problem of violence; this did not work. We never turned anyone away. I believe we should have.
All of this made volunteering difficult and the 40 people who had staffed the program seven nights a week were on the verge of burnout. Four weeks ago tonight we met, and after much discussion decided to close after the following evening.
We are now looking for a new way to feed the street people -- but it must be a way that will avoid the problems that we encountered.
We will do it because even though those people are no longer at our door, they are still in Washington. Many of them will be sleeping on the grates again this winter. They'll still be hungry.
I fear that this account of our experience will discourage other churches and charitable organizations now considering what they can do to help, although I hope it does not.
The task is large enough for many. This includes, of course, the government both of the District of Columbia and the United States: as a recalcitrant, unrepentant and recidivist liberal Christian, I cannot believe that we as individuals or a community will turn our backs on these people, abandoning them to the inexorable workings of Adam Smith's free market.
We had intended to feed the homeless of Foggy Bottom and ended up attempting to feed all the street people of Washington.
There's got to be another way. Ours didn't work.
Ours was a lesson in the wages of charity.