The Aloha Spirit
2/1/2015Darlene J. M. Dela Cruz | photos by Michelle Scott
On a sunny 80-degree “winter” day last December on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, Knights of Columbus from Bishop James J. Sweeney Council 11485 gathered at Sacred Heart Church in Waianae to help tackle a growing problem hidden behind Hawaii’s beauty: hunger and homelessness.
Rising costs of living and other socioeconomic factors have left many people on the islands struggling for food and shelter. Sacred Heart Church lies in a part of Oahu where increasing numbers of homeless people have, in recent years, been finding refuge in tents on public beaches and roadsides.
To address this problem, Council 11485 has teamed up with the outreach ministry at Sacred Heart Church to host weekly food distributions for the needy. These events, held almost every Tuesday, give parish volunteers and Knights from Sacred Heart and from St. Rita Church, in the neighboring town of Nanakuli, a chance to share the “spirit of aloha” — peace, compassion and charity — in a very special way.
Aiding the hungry and homeless is likewise an expression of the Hawaiian “ohana” — or family — spirit, and Knights throughout the islands have been engaged in innovative work toward this cause.
‘A TIME FOR GIFTS’
Gilbert “Gil” Jose of Council 11485 spearheads the Sacred Heart Church outreach initiative. On the morning of Dec. 9, 2014, Jose was at the parish bright and early, greeting guests, organizing volunteers, setting up tents and figuring out logistics for the day’s delivery of rations from the Hawaii Food Bank.
“I love to mingle with the crowd and see how they’re doing,” Jose said. “I get worried sometimes that there won’t be enough volunteers, but everybody comes out again and it turns out all right.”
Involved with parish outreach since 2005, Jose expanded the operation in 2009 at the request of Sacred Heart’s former pastor, Father Carmelo Rey Lim. As a first step, Jose went to the Hawaii Food Bank to inquire about the process of creating a comprehensive and effective food distribution program. He learned the state and federal regulations for homelessness outreach, including policies on discrimination and health requirements. Afterward, Jose worked to find space on the small Sacred Heart Church property where food could be stored properly in ample supply. He and volunteers created a well-stocked pantry out of a parish toolshed, outfitting it with a refrigerator, freezer and lots of shelves.
The Knights and other parishioners at Sacred Heart Church were eager to come on board with the project. All of the volunteers attend a class each year to ensure that they meet stringent guidelines for food handling and social ethics. The class discusses things such as hand washing, distinguishing good canned goods from bad, and treating clients with respect.
“Everybody is reminded about how we do things,” Jose said. “I’m still a rookie, but I’m learning fast.”
The Hawaii Food Bank treats the Sacred Heart outreach program as an official “agency” and drop-off site, Jose explained. With this distinction, the food bank is able to send delivery trucks with provisions for direct donation at the parish on the first and second Tuesdays of each month.
Jose and Dennis Fortna, a fellow member of Council 11485, also regularly drive to the Hawaii Food Bank site in Honolulu’s industrial Mapunapuna district to pick up outreach items. On the third Tuesday of the month, they distribute frozen foods and meats in addition to dry goods and produce. On the fourth Tuesday, they dole out what remains in the pantry, which may include donations from parishioners and community organizations.
The Knights and other volunteers often spend more than eight hours at Sacred Heart Church on distribution days. If a month has a fifth Tuesday, they are given a break.
Clients of the food distribution program typically begin lining up as early as 6:30 a.m. At 10 a.m., people of all different ages and backgrounds are given numbered tickets for one trip through the distribution line.
The program has always been given more than enough supplies to serve its registrants.
“We always have the pantry where we keep canned goods, and we have a couple of freezers where we store extra food,” Fortna explained. “We don’t want to turn anybody away hungry, and have never had to.”
More than 160 people registered for the Dec. 9 distribution. When the trucks arrived at noon, volunteers unloaded pallets of food, lined them up under a tent and organized the donations by category: fresh produce, canned goods, snacks and breads. Jose then gathered everyone together for prayer and to offer encouragement and affirmation of God’s love to those in need.
“This is not only a time for gifts, but a time for happiness and being with one another,” he said.
Tickets were called by number, and volunteers swiftly loaded up clients’ carts and boxes with the food they needed.
“Thank you guys so much,” one client gratefully told a volunteer. “You guys are awesome.”
Longtime Sacred Heart parishioner and fellow council member Paul Ganaban said that the food program is an extremely gratifying experience for all those involved.
“I’m serving the people and I’m serving the Church,” he said.
In addition to providing food at the grassroots level, the program has also provided a way for the parish and state to keep track of who is seeking outreach services. Each client must sign in with an ID or provide an ID at a later time. Organizers keep all of the information in a confidential database.
Jose said that these strategies are nothing new. He has been visiting other well-established outreach programs and social ministries for additional advice on how to handle the sometimes overwhelming task of feeding the hungry.
“We all help each other,” Jose said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
DOING WHAT WE CAN
In addition to the efforts of Council 11485, the altruism of the Knights of Columbus spans across the Hawaiian islands, as councils have been collaborating with parishes and local organizations to feed the hungry.
For instance, Bill Rodrigues of Brother Joseph Dutton Council 7156 in Honolulu regularly picks up surplus items from the Kaneohe Marine Corps Base commissary for the outreach ministry at St. George Church in Waimanalo. A small town on the opposite side of Oahu from Sacred Heart, Waimanalo has also seen a recent rise in the number of homeless camped on its streets and shorelines.
Rodrigues began volunteering his time to pick up food at the Marine Corps base several years ago. He had a close relationship with the late Father William “Bill” Mattimore, who was pastor of St. George Church for more than two decades. Both men served in the military and parlayed their connections at the commissary to benefit their parish family.
“One year, I picked up 19 tons of food,” Rodrigues noted, adding that he is proud to serve as a Knight of Columbus.
“I always wanted to join the Knights,” he said. “I looked up to them. All that I’m doing for the Church, it’s all a blessing.”
The Knights on Oahu are doing well to feed their neighbors, but one council has even been extending aid to the poor across the sea.
St. John Apostle and Evangelist Council 14663 in the Central Oahu city of Mililani has been collecting and shipping food to schoolchildren on the small, disadvantaged island of Molokai. When the expansive Molokai Ranch closed in 2008, many residents were left unemployed and struggling to support families with the rural island’s meager resources.
William Castro, a member of Council 14663, said that the generosity of his fellow parishioners from St. John Apostle and Evangelist Church has been inspiring. The council sends over boxes of food and backpacks filled with nutritious snacks for more than 200 children each month.
The cost to ship these items by barge to Molokai can run high, but Castro said it does not deter the Knights’ passion for this project. He visits Molokai annually and sees firsthand that the children there have been doing much better in school when given healthy, wholesome meals.
“The kids are really benefiting,” Castro said. “We get back more prayers than we give. Christ is involved in this, in everything we do. It’s just such a joy.”
A council on the west side of the Big Island of Hawaii, meanwhile, has started a new effort to provide fresh fruit for the needy.
State Deputy Stephen D. Lopez of St. Michael the Archangel Council 13227 in Kailua-Kona organizes a program called “Knights Harvest.” Since various citrus fruits, papayas, mangos, avocados and bananas often fall to the ground and go to waste on the Big Island’s agricultural land, the council offered to pick up these fruits to share with area food banks. Lopez and his brother Knights now collect excess fruit growing on private properties in the same rich volcanic soil that produces world-famous Kona coffee.
The council has already donated 9,000 pounds of fresh fruit and has inspired the launch of a similar program in the town of Hilo, on the island’s east side.
“It’s a perfect thing for the Knights of Columbus,” Lopez said. “My faith has grown tremendously since being involved with like-minded men.”
Jose echoed these sentiments at the end of the distribution day at Sacred Heart Church in Waianae. Even with weary legs and a tired team of volunteers, he said there is no greater satisfaction than the smiles the Knights receive through the simple sharing of food. He hopes more people will get involved with the outreach program and continue its mission to pay kindness forward.
“I like what I do,” Jose said. “I just like to see the people’s faces. Sometimes it’s only temporary for them, but at least that’s something. We just try to do what we can. Whatever little bit we can give, why not?”
DARLENE J. M. DELA CRUZ is a reporter and photographer for the Hawaii Catholic Herald.