Feeding the homeless in the inner city
But a hot breakfast isn’t the main meal
It’s an unusually cold autumn morning in Belmore Park opposite Sydney’s Central Station. The pigeons and seagulls are fluttering around picking bits and pieces from the grass, as trains click their tracks while passing by. The sun is out, not a cloud in the sky, leaving a cold dry air that makes the morning walkers move with a slight spring in their step.
The usual weekday sights and smells of the inner city are broken by a van that drives up through the park.
A few people start to appear from behind hedges, trees and other areas.
“Most of the people we serve breakfast to sleep around here.”
The van pulls up in the middle of the park. ‘Jesus Cares Ministry’ is written in big red letters on the side.
Out hop four people who gather together and begin praying the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be your name…”
As soon as they finish they spring into action, getting tables out of the van, placing bibles on a stand, putting boxes of food – hot spaghetti, croissants, meat pies – and juice on a table. The boot of the van functions as a mini cafe where hot coffee and tea are served.
The people that emerged from behind the vegetation begin descending upon the van. They’re calm and well mannered but their clothes, or lack thereof, signal that these people have probably been sleeping rough.
Michael Smith is the coordinator of Jesus Cares Ministry and he confirms this. “There’s about 20 people who sleep in this park,” says Michael. “Most of the people we serve breakfast to sleep around here.”
A few people are greeted, served food and hot beverages by the volunteers, as more and more people slowly emerge.
“I go there and they give me food and everything.” – Sunny
“Good morning,” says Michael to one man who’s approaching the van. “Good morning, Michael” the man replies in a friendly tone.
Another man begins to tell one of the volunteers how he was in a fight across the road, closer to Central Station, in the early hours of the morning. He admits that he punched a man in the face.
“Yeah? Well just remember when you punch someone in the face, who are you also punching? God. You’re punching God in the face. So you shouldn’t do that.”
The burly man with no shoes on, holding a blanket over his shoulders, replies: ‘Oh. Yeah that’s right.’
The Jesus Cares Ministry team are comfortable in these conditions. No one gets frustrated or angry with the cold weather or the requests. Everything runs like clockwork. Two of the team members are serving food and drinks while the other two mingle and know almost every visitor to the van by name.
When I begin talking to Michael, the coordinator, one man comes up and hugs him and says “goodbye”. Michael smiles and then before the man leaves, he introduces him. “This is Sunny, a long-term friend of the ministry.” Sunny has been visiting the van for the past 10 years. He came from India 32 years ago. When asked “why he comes to the van”, he didn’t try and make excuses.
“One day I was very hungry; I don’t have any food in the fridge and anything. I asked my landlord, I said ‘I’m very hungry.’ He said, ‘They have a Jesus Cares Ministry (at the park). You should go there.’ And I go there and they give me food and everything. Jesus is looking after me and everything is good,” says Sunny.
“God’s saying, ‘I’m not here just to give out food, I’m here to give life.” – Michael Smith
But Michael is quick to point that it’s not only physical food that they’re interested in offering those who come to visit.
“The love of God compels us that there’s more than food. God’s saying, ‘I’m not here just to give out food, I’m here to give life.’”
“We are like that triage, that emergency triage; when people think they’re at rock bottom and there’s no hope – ‘God’s not here; there’s just darkness’. We’re there saying, ‘No, God is here, and there is hope’ and we’re just there to be the light to show them the way.’
Not only do the volunteers openly talk about faith in Jesus with the visitors to the van, they also offer material that people can take with them.
“We have Bibles; we give out hundreds of Bibles every year and this year – we don’t keep statistics – we’ve had 16 [people] come to the Lord.”
“I’m off the drugs and I’m back at school.”
One story Michael related was of a teenage boy who was on the streets with his girlfriend last year. The young man was heavily hooked on the drug ice. Then, one night, he decided to give his life to God. The boy stopped turning up for food and a year later a young man came to Michael and said, ‘Do you remember me?’
Michael had to do a double take before realising it was the boy hooked on ice from the year before. He told Michael what had happened to him after he gave his life to God: “I’m off the drugs, I’m back at school and finishing my HSC (final school exam).”
The food van also goes out every Friday and Saturday night, visiting various parts of Sydney’s CBD. Jesus Cares Ministry also runs an op shop at Lalor Park, an outreach Bible stand in Lakemba on Thursdays and a fellowship service on Sundays.