By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published April 1, 2004
Organizers of a food drive for Haiti are rejoicing that what seemed like an overwhelming request a few weeks ago has been met and surpassed by such a generous response they can only praise God for moving mountains.
Enough bulk food has been collected at St. John Neumann Church, Lilburn, and St. Benedict Church, Duluth, to more than fill a 40-foot trailer, a feat that seemed out of reach when the first request came in from Father Richard HoLung, founder of the Missionaries of the Poor. Priests and brothers of the order serve among the poorest people in various countries, including Haiti and Jamaica.
“The thought was pretty overwhelming to me when Father HoLung asked us to provide enough to fill a 20-foot trailer,” said Jack Marder, a member of St. John Neumann Church and one of the organizers of the “Haiti Is Hungry” food drive.
As of March 22, he said, “We will probably have more than will fit into a 40-foot trailer.”
“The whole thing has turned out to be not my project,” he added. “It is the Lord’s project, obviously, the way everything is coming together.”
Serving in Kingston, Jamaica, Father HoLung has become well known to many in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, clergy and lay people, who have taken part in spiritual pilgrimages to the island and worked with the Missionaries of the Poor in hands-on ministry to the sick, the dying, the unwanted and abandoned, disabled children and the elderly.
Marder and his sister, Jane Rogers, are among those active as lay associates with the order and Rogers, a member of Prince of Peace Church, Buford, volunteers in staffing an office in Atlanta to coordinate support in the United States for the Missionaries’ work.
It was the Missionaries of the Poor serving in Cap-Haitien, Haiti, who were desperately in need of food as violent civil strife and the collapse of the Haitian government of President Jean Bertrand Aristide led to chaos.
Brother Lueima, superior of the Missionaries in Cap-Haitien, sent word by e-mail after phone lines went down, Rogers said. “He said the situation there was very bleak. They were rationing what food they had. They (the Missionaries) were not willing to leave. I know the food was really, really needed.”
A group from St. Benedict’s Church, including pastor Msgr. Hugh Marren, had recently returned from a mission trip working with Father HoLung in Jamaica and so the two parishes decided to take on the major food drive together.
On weekends in March, slips were made available after Masses at both parishes. Each slip named a bulk food item, the estimated cost and possible warehouse stores or places to buy in bulk.
Items included 50-pound sacks of rice, cornmeal and flour, cases of baby food and baby formula, cases of canned meat and fish, 40-pound boxes of pinto beans, 25-pound sacks of sugar and salt, and bulk quantities of powdered milk, cooking oil, oatmeal and soup.
At St. Benedict, project coordinator Deacon Tom Huff, who has been to missions in both Jamaica and Haiti, estimates that the slips of paper requesting food were all taken after the first two of seven weekend Masses at the Duluth parish.
“Msgr. Marren began to photocopy the tickets. We probably gave out 1,000 tickets,” Deacon Huff said.
Although the heft of the items made shopping unusual and unwieldy, both churches quickly had a sizeable pile of food building in their vestibules.
“We got a call by midweek, saying the food was down the hall,” at St. John Neumann, Rogers said.
The hope was to reach the goal as quickly as possible in March and ship the food to Haiti, hopefully by the first week of April. The goods were readied for shipping March 27.
In addition to parishioners’ generosity, warehouse space was donated by the company where Deacon Huff works. St. John Neumann parishioner Shawn Murray donated a vehicle to transport bulk food from the parishes to the warehouse on several weekends, and donors provided material to shrink-wrap and palletize the food before loading the trailer. In contacting a Canadian company to purchase 5,000 pounds of pinto beans, Rogers was told, “We’ll donate them.”
Stepping out in faith to collect this huge quantity of food was one thing. Getting it to Haiti was another. The best shipping price that could be obtained after much searching was about $4,600, Rogers said, a staggering amount to the volunteer group. As they continued to seek answers, they received a call from Father HoLung, saying that Food for the Poor, the relief agency based in Florida, which works in the Caribbean and Latin America, had agreed to provide free all the transportation to Cap-Haitien.
Each step along the way, more has come than was expected. Rogers said the in-kind donations will now let them use any monetary gifts to buy more food. “God has just been so good. People have been so generous,” she said.
The pastors, Msgr. Marren and Father Stewart Wilber at St. John Neumann, inspired the communities, Rogers added. “Father Stewart jumped into this with both feet. He was excited. His passion caught on throughout the church as he would talk about this. Msgr. Marren had just come back from the missions. He was on fire.”
On a trip to Haiti two years ago, she said the people and the country profoundly touched her.
“Haiti has my heart. I thought I had seen poverty when I went to Jamaica. But on a scale of one to 10, Haiti is a 10, yet they were the sweetest, kindest people, full of smiles. We couldn’t speak the language. We didn’t need to . . . There was a joyfulness right in the midst of the poverty.”
Father Wilber said he was “thrilled to have our outreach ministry work in association with Msgr. Marren and the folks at St. Benedict’s on a project as important as this.” He was particularly glad “we were able to do something practical, as opposed to wringing our hands, to help somebody who was in such need.”
Marder said the experience reminds him of the Gospel story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes.
“It’s neat to be a part of something where it becomes clear that all that was needed was to say, ‘Yes, Lord, we’re going to do this.’ That is kind of neat,” Marder said. “Thank you, Lord, for allowing us to be part of the work you’re doing.”