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‘Free lunch’

Since the strict COVID-19 quarantine started here in Bolivia on March 22, we have only been allowed to go out one morning per week, and only to buy the essentials for the whole week.

Sadly, this quarantine has most severely affected the most vulnerable within our communities. People who are homeless essentially have no place to go and no one to turn to for help. And street vendors and others who previously made their living in the informal economy now have lost their livelihoods. Because of the quarantine, all soup kitchens in Cochabamba are closed, the streets are deserted and people are afraid of approaching strangers.

Our first big grocery run. With the quarantine restrictions, shopping for large quantities of food has been a challenge.

Unable to get to our ministry sites, we decided to start preparing and putting meals outside of our gate every morning for those who are homeless and hungry.

We started the effort by announcing it with a sign outside our home that said, “Beginning on Saturday, April 18, if you or anyone you know has difficulty paying for a meal, we will put out plates of food every day at 11 a.m. … Please take only one plate each day as needed.”

For the past three weeks, we have been cooking and serving daily fresh and hot meals for all who come to our front gate to pick it up. We cook a different Bolivian dish each day and try to make it as delicious, balanced and nutritious as possible. We prep as much as possible the night before, then we get up early to start cooking in order to have all food ready in time.

Over these three weeks, as the word has gotten around, the numbers have steadily increased. In the first week, we served a total of 165 meals (an average of about 24 meals per day). During the second week, we served 284 meals. And this past week, we served 463 meals; today we hit a new record of 75 hot meals served.

For safety reasons, we are placing the meals in plastic bags and other disposable containers. This makes it easier to hand over the meals quickly and minimizes the risk of contamination. It also allows people to be on their way more quickly after receiving the food, which makes it easier to keep crowds from gathering.

It took us a while to figure out how to cook the huge quantities of rice.

We are wearing gloves and masks at all times, and our “customers” stay outside the gate on the sidewalk, as we hand over the food. For their own safety, we also ask people to wear masks or cover their mouths with something else. We sanitize people’s hands by spraying them with alcohol. In this way, we are not breaking any rules of the strict Bolivian quarantine but have found a way to serve those in our community who are most in need during this crisis, while keeping them as safe as possible.

Police sometimes pass in front of our house to check what we are doing, but then they go on their way. They too seem to understand the hard reality many are going through.

Adapting to the quickly increasing demand and also learning to cook for so many people has been an adventure. It took us a while to figure out how to cook the huge quantities of rice.

Given that we only have one morning per week to get supplies — and that all private and public transportation is prohibited — getting the large quantities of food to feed so many people has been a challenge.

Our local Sant’Egidio community, which has been ministering with homeless people, has been helping us out by providing some food donations, guidance and occasionally volunteers.

Local neighbors have dropped by to give us words of encouragement as well as food donations. Pretty much every day, we get donations of bottled juice, bread, vegetables, tuna, fruits, etc.

A donation of freshly made cheese bread

When Celia, one of our regulars, first found us, she told us, “This is heaven!” Her remark has made me reflect on how close “heaven” can really be — it can be right in front of us, if only we see it, want it and work for it.

Humberto, who was about 70 and one of our favorite customers, arrived every day, 15 minutes early, to be the first in line. He would chat with us through the gate, while we were setting up. I wonder if he came so early because he was so hungry for food or for conversation and feeling appreciated. He was so happy every time he received a lunch.

Yesterday we found out that he had died on Tuesday night. We had the privilege of giving him food for the last two weeks of his life. We miss seeing him every day, but it has been a small comfort to know that he died with a filled stomach.

Every day we have new encounters, experience new stories and gain new friendships. Through this outreach, we are getting to know the realities and the difficulties people in our community go through, especially during this time of the pandemic.

I have been able to find God in a new way through this temporary ministry.

 


Photos courtesy of Cortney Freshwater and Juan Gomez

Juan Gomez Juan Gomez
Juan Gomez teaches and coaches at Colegio San Bosco, a Catholic boarding school in Tacopaya, Bolivia.