By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published May 12, 2021
NORCROSS–Six days a week, a 2004 grey Honda Odyssey minivan, with a rosary hanging from its rearview mirror and a St. Joseph prayer card tucked in its dashboard, gets loaded with nearly 300 meals. A truck carries a second batch of meals.
Henry Lam readies for several hours of driving, making stops from Suwanee to East Atlanta.
“We got to know all the people in the streets, we know almost all of them by name. They all know us. That’s the love we need to give each other, our brothers and sisters out there,” Lam said, while volunteers in the Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Church kitchen prepared the meals.
This parish outreach seeks to find those who are isolated from others. As trust grows, the goals grow beyond a daily plate of food–from helping to land a temporary job to providing clothing.
“We’re delivering to people living under the bridges, burned down churches, abandoned buildings, cemeteries, out in the woods, and sleeping in cars,” said Lam.
The issues the ministry faces are complex, especially during the pandemic. Studies have found some 288,000 adults in metro Atlanta consider themselves experiencing food scarcity, which means there has often not been enough to eat in the last seven days. And amid economic trouble, tens of thousands lost jobs and face back rent and mortgage payments they may not be able to fulfill, with evictions looming.
In the kitchen: “do the work of Christ”
The handful of masked volunteers in the roomy kitchen are in constant motion, working to get hundreds of meals out the door for delivery. The meals can number as high as 640, depending on food available. The kitchen crew starts cooking around 9 a.m. after attending daily Mass at the distinctive church, with its swooping roof lines. The goal is for the two aging vehicles, driven by Lam and his colleague Chuong “Joseph” Nguyen, to pull onto I-85 by noon.
Ngoc Nguyen and Xam Le, a husband and wife team, volunteer daily, preparing the meals and placing the food in clamshell boxes.
“We are happy to do it,” said Le, 66, a mother of five children. Her words were translated from Vietnamese. “Thank God because he gave us the strength to come out and do the work of Christ,” she said.
More than a meal
On a recent Wednesday, Ai “Tina” Tran, Lam’s wife, prepared 528 servings of stir-fry vegetables with rice and meatballs. Stirring pots filled with all that food is tiring, but it’s a good feeling knowing people will have a meal, she said.
“We feel we are doing God’s work. We consider you our brother or sister. They don’t have to be Catholic,” said Tran, 42, who manages her mother’s nail salon.
Another day the meal is macaroni and cheese, along with cake and bread. Other times, it may be American food, an Italian meal or Japanese-style fried rice. “We’ve got all kinds of just different things that we’ll do. We try to put as much love into every meal as we can,” said Lam.
The prepared food is a key part of the work, but it goes beyond that. Women and men without shelter are helped to find jobs, from landscaping to unloading trucks, he said. Lam’s phone pings every few minutes with an incoming text message and a phone call from an employer looking for help.
The kitchen work did not stop during the worst of the pandemic, as volunteers adopted all the safety precautions. People who are homeless needed the help more because other charities had to stop their services, Tran said.
From dark days to service
Hustling to aid people experiencing homelessness is not where Lam saw himself. A few years ago, the 42-year-old father of two was a hard-charging businessman with stores selling gold and diamonds. His life was focused on money, but his chain of retail stores collapsed as he fell victim to fraud, he said. Lam said suicide seemed like a good option.
“God was not in my life. And that day the Lord saved me and that’s when I came to know the Lord,” said Lam, remembering the exact day—March 19, 2019.
This unexpected sense of love saved him.
“It was like this electrifying kind of love that you can almost, literally, feel every cell in your body. And from that moment, it was like a light switch,” he said. Moved by the experience, he joined his wife and children in the faith and became Catholic at St. John Neumann Church, Lilburn.
“The Holy Spirit’s kind of been with me ever since. And every day it has been teaching me something and guided me a certain way,” he said.
If everybody did a little
The days are filled as his phone buzzes with new needs. Lam fell back on habits that made his business prosper, planning 10 steps ahead and checking boxes to form a nonprofit. He shelved the effort when paperwork took time away from his hands-on work.
Two years ago, he began cooking and delivering meals. It started in the kitchen at his family home in Lawrenceville, but the job got too unwieldy with 250 daily meals. The garage acted as the pantry and storage. A year ago, the parish opened its doors to the work.
Nguyen, his delivery partner, arrived in the States from Vietnam three years ago. He worked in the computer industry there. Now, he spends his days delivering meals as a partner with Lam. He aspires at some point to serve as a deacon. This is an opportunity “to learn and follow Christ,” he said.
There are so many homeless people, so many people to help, and there are only two of us, said Nguyen, speaking in Vietnamese. If everybody did a little, there would be more than enough to help the women and men, he said.
On the road, Lam in the Odyssey and Nguyen driving a Highlander, could be making deliveries well past midnight. And then a few hours later, the stove burners in the kitchen get turned on again.
“If you told me, you’re going to give me back all the money that I lost from all the businesses, I wouldn’t trade any of that for where I’m at right now,” said Lam. “Somehow the Lord and the Holy Spirit have given me something where I’m living the words of Christ each day. And that’s all I need.”