Loaves and Backpacks
By Angie Nasrallah
The clients of St. John’s Loaves and Fishes program are adults that find themselves on the streets of Atlanta, homeless or close to it, and thankful for a meal or a gift. They make their way every morning to this destination, a small red-bricked Orthodox church in the middle of a residential area near downtown. A banner of St. John the Wonderworker hangs conspicuously on the front of the building, his dark eyes looking out upon the scene here. Outside the church gate, the men (and one or two women) wait for the clock to strike 9 am. At that exact moment, the men shuffle into the church fellowship hall through a side door and grab a cup of steaming hot coffee and a pastry. They sit, thankful to be out of the elements, swigging their warm beverages while an announcement is made.
Loaves and Fishes “clients”, as Craig prefers to call them, live around the city of Atlanta. They live on park benches, in tents, around shelters and sometimes halfway houses. They eke out existences from soup kitchens, substance abuse programs, churches. Some have been on the street longer than others. Many lived lives inside the normal grid, as you and I do, but life dealt them a bad blow. They couldn’t pay rent. They lost their job. They had severe health problems on top of a divorce. They couldn’t quit the drugs and they went bankrupt. The reasons are endless.
Today there are 55 men. In a half- whisper, the director of this program, Craig, stands near the coffee and looks over to a young man named Peake.
“Are they ready? Are they going out today?” Asks Craig.
Peake, now 23, has been attending St. John the Wonderworker Orthodox Church since he was 10 years old. Somewhere in that time, God gave him a heart to serve and that keeps him engaged here.
Then, Craig straightens and announces in a full voice: “I’d like to introduce you to Peake. He has a special gift for you today.”
Peake stands, “Hey everyone! I’m Peake. Some of ya’ll may recognize me from around here. Me and a team of people have put together some backpacks for you guys.” At the word ‘backpack’, the whole room erupts into a charged, but respectful round of applause. A prayer is said over the meal and a sense of relief and merriment fills the room as the men make their way to the breakfast line.
St. Johns has been serving breakfast to the needy here since 2004. Churches, businesses and community volunteers donate and serve here every day of the week, 365 days a year.
After breakfast, all 55 men line up to grab a stuffed, colorful backpack.
Stuffed is an understatement when referring to these packs. Three churches and a local family came together to purchase, pack and distribute the bags which are loaded with personal items to help these street dwellers better survive the harsh summer environment. The packs include a notebook with pen and pencil, a washcloth, a small sewing kit, socks, vitamins, water, chocolate (who doesn’t love chocolate), a tube of toothpaste and tooth brush, a bar of soap, and a queen sized sheet!
Once they grab a pack in the color of their choice, they are offered a pair of clean underwear, a Bible and an extra bottle of water.
“The guys were extremely thankful. Even the most quiet of men expressed their thanks, Peake told me later: “One guy said, “I wish we could get a backpack every week!”
Another guy asked for the lavender pack and joked, “I wish there were some green inside it,” he said laughing.
Peake facilitated the backpack project with Craig and Amy, a local philanthropist. The three planned, found donors and organized a volunteer packing party to prepare for this moment. For Craig, the idea of handing out filled backpacks to their regular breakfast clientele was a way to give the men something permanent that they could bring with them out into the city. Craig has been directing the Loaves and Fishes program for several years and is intimately acquainted with the needs of his clients.
“They need their own hygiene and personal care items and something tangible that is theirs, not borrowed or stolen. The backpack will give them a portable way to transport the items,” Craig told Peake one morning last fall.
Peake took the idea and ran with it, getting donations from fellow parishioners, asking friends and family to volunteer to pack the bags, and coordinating all of the project to wrap up in late spring.
“When those men applauded for the backpacks, that was probably the most exciting event of my life!” Peake told me the next morning. “It was awesome.”
Craig, Peake and Amy represent three different churches and three different decades, yet they came together seamlessly to implement the project. Like Father Jacob Myers who started this program years ago, they serve and are blessed by their service of the needy and the poor. They carry on Father Jacob’s ministry and continue to modify to meet the needs of these men where they are today.