SPECIAL TO THE CATHOLIC HERALD
One of the most important ministries at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist is the Open Door Café.
Volunteers and staff have worked hard to provide hot lunches six days a week to more than 150 of the most vulnerable among us. They’ve provided hygiene kits, help with transportation, medical and housing assistance to countless people in need, and have become a beacon of hope in downtown Milwaukee.
In March, when the government closed businesses, staff at the Open Door Café responded immediately. Unable to provide hot meals and restricted by the number of people they could allow to congregate, they knew that they had to continue to help the many who have come to rely on them within the bounds of the recommendations from the health department.
Fr. Jose Gonzalez, associate pastor at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, said, “We’re the last stop; there’s nowhere else for them to go.”
Under the direction of Shanedra Johnson, the Director of Outreach Ministries, Fr. Gonzalez and a host of volunteers worked to offer a brown bag lunch with a sandwich, some protein, a bottle of water and fruit to an average of 86 to 110 people every day.
The challenge in the beginning was that supermarkets began selling out of bread and water and other essentials they needed. Fr. Gonzalez said, “It was a struggle. I didn’t know what to do; so I prayed and did what I could.”
Fr. Gonzalez spent many days going from supermarket to supermarket getting loaves of bread and water where he could. Then a group of parishioners from the Hispanic community began fasting with him every Friday.
“They are poor, too,” he said. “They’re grieving the fact that they don’t have the Eucharist and that they don’t have the means to help as much as they want to.”
Together, they gave up a weekly portion of their food, reminded by Fr. Gonzalez that the Eucharist is all about Jesus giving us life and that with this pandemic he’s presenting us with a choice. Will we give life to others?
During the day of fasting, people drop off loaves of bread.
“It’s an incredible sacrifice for many of them,” Fr. Gonzalez said. “Some are very poor, but it’s true that those who have the least seem to give the most.”
As they stack their loaves and keep 6 feet apart, those who give without hesitation often tell Fr. Gonzalez of people they know who are in need but won’t ask for themselves. Every week, he puts essentials like rice and beans, spaghetti and cereal in boxes and delivers them to people who have homes but are struggling to live as the long weeks of this pandemic drag on and the need increases.
“People don’t like to ask,” he said. “Others ask for them and they reluctantly, but gratefully, take our help.”
Though there is much suffering, Fr. Gonzalez says he’s seen the shining hope of abundant goodness in the many people who have been helping others in big and small ways. Recently, he was told about a boy who’d been saving spare coins in a box by his bed. He saw his mom going to the store to buy bread for the homeless and he brought the box to her and asked, “Mom, what should I do with this money?”
When she told him that he could do anything he wanted, the boy asked her to buy more bread.
“These small acts of goodness give us life,” Fr. Gonzalez said. “That we are people of the resurrection and life will always triumph.”
With job losses increasing, the Open Door Café sees more people in need every day. To help support their efforts, contact Shanedra Johnson at ShanedraJohnson@stjohncathedral.org.