NYC Parish Packages 20,000 Meals for West Africa

Fr. Lawrence Ford, OFM Around the Province

Lay people package food at Holy Name Church in New York City.

Volunteers package food at Holy Name Church in New York City. (Photo courtesy of Larry Ford)

The pastor of Holy Name Parish describes a food packaging and distribution initiative held during Lent to benefit the people of Burkina Faso in Africa – one that he calls” an example of Franciscan peacemaking.”

NEW YORK — Last spring, two parishioners of Holy Name, Pat and Bill Friel, participated in a mission trip with Catholic Relief Services. They traveled to Burkina Faso on the west coast of Africa, where their faith and imaginations were captured by the need and goodness of the people. They were also able to see the good work CRS was doing in that country and felt confident in CRS’s distribution system.

After the Friels returned to the United States, they approached me last fall about holding a “Helping Hands” event as a parish mission. “Helping Hands” is a program developed by CRS and Stop Hunger Now, during which volunteers package meals for those suffering from food shortages and famine in Burkina Faso. Stop Hunger helps provide the food and CRS provides the shipping and distribution. The food consists of soy and regular rice, along with dry vegetables and vitamins. All are designed for easy digestion for people, especially children, who are malnourished.

We planned to recruit volunteers and solicit donations during Lent, a parish-wide fast with almsgiving and prayer. The event we organized came off very well, and was more successful than the planners anticipated.

Larry Ford and the Friels

Larry Ford with Bill and Pat Friel, who initiated the program. (Photo courtesy of Larry)

Gathering Support
The Sunday before Ash Wednesday, we put up posters around the parish campus to advertise the event. In the church vestibule, we placed three annotated photo albums — in English, Spanish and French, for each of our language groups — of the Friel’s trip that showed interaction between the people of Burkina and CRS staff members. We placed envelopes in the church vestibule to collect donations — people could buy or provide meals at a cost of 50 cents per meal.

During Lent, we encouraged our confirmation candidates and religious education students to create posters supporting “Helping Hands” and to talk with their families about simplifying a meal a week and giving the money to this project. Additionally, the Ash Wednesday collections and donations were allocated to this endeavor.

Our original goal was 5,000 meals or $2,500. Stop Hunger provides the food ingredients according to money raised. We raised just over $10,000, which meant we planned for 20,000 meals.

We were able to recruit more than 100 volunteers to set up and package the food on April 11. The volunteers ranged in ages from 4 to 80 and included families and individuals. Most were associated with the parish, but others were simply neighbors and passersby who had simply heard about the project or saw the signs.

One of my favorite volunteers was on older Haitian woman who was on the bus, saw the sign and got off, walked into the lower chapel and said, “This is where I am supposed to be this morning.” She worked with us for 90 minutes.

Kevin Tortorelli packaging food

Kevin Tortorelli lends a hand to volunteers. (Photo courtesy of Larry)

Putting Faith into Action
As the meals wree packaged, there was music playing and happy energy in the room as the meals were packaged. A gong was sounded as each 1,000 meal threshold was crossed. Kevin Tortorelli, OFM, and I were there for most of the morning, and Michael McDonnell, OFM, and Matthew Pravetz, OFM, came at various times to thank and encourage the people.

There was a true assembly line, with teams of people scooping the different ingredients into a funnel in a specific order, running the bags to the scales, weighing the contents, then sealing the bags for loading into boxes. The music, purpose and energy kept monotony away. We started at 8:30 a.m. with set up and had completed our task before noon.

Happily, we have people within our community who have emigrated from Burkina Faso, and they truly rallied to support this endeavor for the people of their homeland and country. Likewise, the broader parish community felt a personal connection to those who would benefit from our efforts, generosity and charity.

We began with prayer, recognizing that in that week’s Gospel, Jesus appeared to his disciples and wished them peace and was recognized in the breaking of the bread, the sharing of a meal. Peace is truly only possible when everyone has something to eat and is welcomed at the table. What we did that morning was an example of Franciscan peacemaking, by feeding the hungry and creating community.

Fr. Lawrence has been pastor of Holy Name Parish since 2014.