When did I see you hungry?

| December 3, 2015 | 0 Comments

Armed with a gift for feeding others, Burnsville Catholic leads weekly dinner for people in need

Pat Haas takes time out from serving the meal and supervising volunteers to greet guests at the weekly Thursday night dinner Nov. 19 at Mary, Mother of the Church in Burnsville. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Pat Haas takes time out from serving the meal and supervising volunteers to greet guests at the weekly Thursday night dinner Nov. 19 at Mary, Mother of the Church in Burnsville. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

First in a 14-part series highlighting local Catholics who live out the corporal and spiritual works of mercy

She was an older woman who walked with a cane.

At the end of the serving line she took the plate of chili-mac, green beans and cornbread, but before she could take a step, Pat Haas was there.

Asking if she could help, Haas held the plate for the woman and followed her to a table where she could join others in having her Thursday night supper.

Volunteers who help with the weekly community dinner at Mary, Mother of the Church in Burnsville weren’t surprised at Haas’ small act of hospitality. They see it every Thursday.

“We’re feeding souls, not just bodies,” said one of those volunteers, Jeri Bartek, as she welcomed guests arriving for the weekly community supper at the big suburban parish on Cliff Road.

“They’re hungry, not just for food,” Bartek added. “It’s the warmth. It’s the hospitality. It’s the friendship.”

This month, the Meals @ Mary Mother program expects to serve its 10,000th meal, and Bartek points to Haas as the reason.

“We couldn’t have done it without Pat’s vision, without her drive,” Bartek said.

Basic needs

“I’ve always loved to volunteer,” said Haas, 66. She was a good Latin student in her Catholic school, and in the fifth grade she would spend part of her Saturdays helping teach Latin to the public school students at Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) classes.

Later she was a Spanish teacher, then a school counselor in public schools in La Crosse, Wisconsin. What Haas saw in that latter role touched her. “I came to grasp what it was like not to have your basic needs met,” she recalled, “and how that enveloped your whole life.

“Many students didn’t know where they were going to be that night, if they were going to have anything to eat.”

Meeting parents and learning their struggles, she said, “gave me even more reason to help.” “People didn’t know how they were going to provide supper for their kids,” she said. “It gave me a better understanding of the gifts from God and how fortunate I was.”

That new understanding led her to Place of Grace, a Catholic Worker House run by the Diocese of La Crosse. She served by cooking and learned a lesson she tries to share with everyone who volunteers at Meals @ Mary Mother: As people of faith, we are to treat everyone who walks in the door like Jesus.

“I think it’s a privilege to help other people,” Haas said. “If Jesus were to knock on my door, I’d want to give him my best, and that’s what I want to do for others: Give them my best.”

Haas pours gravy as part of meal for a guest. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Haas pours gravy as part of meal for a guest. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Feeding others a strength

Fast-forward to Minnesota.

Parishioners at Mary, Mother of the Church had thought about feeding the hungry as a parish effort in the past, then early in 2013 did some research in the community to confirm the need.

Kathy Lowry recalled that the parish Christian Caring and Justice Commission had discussed the possibility of a hunger initiative. Low-income housing had been built right across Cliff Road.

About that time, pastoral associate Julia Taube was teaching a “StrengthsFinders” class at the parish. Haas had moved to the Twin Cities to be near her sons and their growing families. A new parishioner, she was taking the class.

The way Haas remembers it, she learned via StrengthsFinders that feeding people was one of her gifts. “I didn’t know where I was going to use that gift, other than somewhere in the metro area,” she said.

Haas recalled Taube asking her “Why don’t we do that right here?”

“That’s when the wheels started spinning,” Haas said. Taube went back to the Christian Caring and Justice Commission saying, “ ‘Oh, I found someone,’ ” Lowry said.

“It was like the Holy Spirit sent Pat to Julia,” said Lowry, a member of the commission who now is part of the core team of volunteers for Meals @ Mary Mother.

Pat Haas joins in prayer with other volunteers and guests before the meal is served. Haas pours gravy as part of meal for a guest. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Pat Haas joins in prayer with other volunteers and guests before the meal is served. Haas pours gravy as part of meal for a guest. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Red tape

But there were plenty of steps that had to be taken before the first meal could be served. Haas walked the meal proposal through each of them.

The state health department had to approve the kitchen facilities. The parish Christian Caring and Justice Commission had to approve the proposal for a weekly meal for the needy.

Both the parish Finance and Personnel Council and the parish Pastoral Council had to give the OK, too.

Haas even had to become certified to be able to coordinate meal preparation for the public.

Still more challenges surfaced.

Parishioners were concerned about the security of the building, about who was going to ensure the facilities were left clean, about the potential for problems that would require police involvement.

And since there was no money in the parish operating budget for the effort, a separate designated fund would have to be established with donations specifically for the meals program.

“Pat fought the good fight in the beginning to get the parish leadership to agree to the meal,” said Suzanne Bernet, pastoral associate for Community Life and Social Justice, who replaced Taube after her death in May. Haas’ determination to feed the hungry — a corporal work of mercy — led her to overcome every barrier in the way.

“We would move ahead,” Haas said, “and have to wait and do some convincing to get the approval.”

She credits the recently deceased Father Jim Zappa, Mary, Mother’s pastor at the time, with opening some of the doors.

“He had no doubt we should do this,” she said.

The parish served its first meal Jan. 16, 2014.

Involving others

Haas’ leadership skills have shone as she continues to coordinate Meals @ Mary Mother.

One of the best things it’s done is opened up volunteer opportunities for people who weren’t otherwise involved in parish life.

Today more than 175 people are involved in making Meals @ Mary Mother happen every Thursday. Some volunteers are there every week to cook, serve or welcome guests; others volunteer once a month or whenever they can.

More volunteers prepare desserts and bring them to the parish.

Still others donate so Haas and Bernet can shop for the food. The fund has never run out.

Bernet, readying her headscarf to take on a volunteer role dishing out food, said, “Pat has a wonderful way of drawing people in. She makes volunteering fun.”

Pete Lowry, the manager of the dining room on Thursdays, said that’s because Haas respects volunteers, and they know how she puts her heart and soul into the weekly meals.

“She’s just a servant,” Lowry said. “She has a passion for making sure people have a good meal.”

Out of respect for their privacy, guests’ names are kept confidential, but volunteers who each week join the guests for dinner reported that some admit they didn’t know where

they would have eaten that evening if it wasn’t for Meals @ Mary Mother, while others — particularly some of the elderly — say they come to the Thursday meals because it’s the one night a week they don’t have to eat alone.

Hospitality primary

Haas knows she’s been called to feed the hungry, and she’s discovered that in doing so she and the volunteers at Mary, Mother are filling more than stomachs.

“The highlight of my week is when our guests are here, having a great meal, having a great time, and don’t want to go home,” Haas said. “We’ve learned that for some, we’re taking away a couple of hours of loneliness.

“When we first started, we talked about the food as the priority. We didn’t talk about the hospitality. As we’ve progressed, the hospitality has become more important.”

Feeding the hungry “puts great value on every human being,” Haas said. “We are all equal and all deserve the best. And we have an obligation to help those in need.”

Mary Mother’s pastor Father James Perkl called Meals @ Mary Mother “a blessing to our parish family.” He’s noticed that people come not only for the food, but also “to find a sense of belonging within a community of love,” and it wasn’t uncommon for guests to share about their lives with him, including their aches and pains.

“For myself,” he said, “I enjoy the homemade food and having supper with our guests, as well as getting to know those who come week to week. It’s great to see how the food is prepared and served with such great love by a good number of volunteers.”

Tags: , , ,

Category: Featured, Year of Mercy