Feeding the Masses


Taking food to Washington, D.C.’s homeless gave these priests a new perspective.

“Two sandwiches? I want three! Gimme three!”

“Man, I can really use this. Thanks.”

“Hey sweetie! You’re kinda cute.”

“Can I take one home to my kid? We haven’t eaten in a while.”

“Peanut butter? I can’t eat this stuff. Ain’tcha got no cheese?”

Mark looked around in the tray for something that he thought was a cheese sandwich and handed it to the hungry man standing at the open side door of the big white van. Mark and three other priests from the Arlington Ward, McLean Stake, were distributing food as fast as they could to the needy and homeless of Washington, D.C. This was a service project a little out of the ordinary for the priests, one they wouldn’t soon forget.

The plan had sounded simple enough. They’d go to a charity kitchen called “Martha’s Table,” where food had been donated and prepared. They’d load a van, which was driven by another volunteer, then head out to give away the food at three prearranged locations.

Mark Wolthuis, 16, was to hand out sandwiches, fruit, and pastries. Taylor Holsinger, 16, would do the same thing. Gonzalo Vargas, 17, would be at the back of the truck, wearing yellow rubber gloves and ladling up hot vegetable soup. And Keith Haraguchi, 16, would pour drinks from big plastic coolers he’d set up outside the van.

A line about 50 people strong had already formed by the time the van pulled up to the first stop, a busy downtown street corner bordering a small square. The young men were surprised to see a business suit or two and several bicycle couriers in line. They were also surprised the first time they saw what they later understood to be standard operating procedure: People would stand in line, get their food, then go straight to the end of the line. By the time they got to the front of the line again, they had finished their first helpings and were ready for seconds.

The second stop was Lafayette Park, right across the street from the White House. There were even more eaters there, their numbers swollen by those who had run over from the last stop. While some tenderly fed their last sandwich crumbs to the pigeons, others were trying to cut in the line, and a fight erupted. The boys just kept on dispensing food.

The last stop was in a more residential neighborhood. Old brick apartment buildings surrounded a small park where the food was handed out. There some of the people stopped to chat, explaining that with rent and food costs so high, they couldn’t afford both. “Prices here are some of the highest in the country,” agreed Taylor.

Gonzalo turned the big soup kettle on its side, trying to ladle out the last drops of broth, and Keith poured his last drink. They loaded their equipment back in the truck for the final time and pulled away from the curb. One or two lone, shabby figures remained to pick through the discarded wrappers, hoping to find a crumb or two worth eating. On the way back to Arlington, after the van had been returned and the empty trays, pots, and coolers unloaded, the boys talked about what they’d learned from the experience. They had done their part to help the needy, but the needy had also helped them.

Taylor said it made him realize how important it is to work hard in school and to take advantage of the educational opportunities he has right now to prepare for future employment. “I don’t ever want to end up in the streets,” he said.

Keith learned about gratitude. Although the food they gave out was simple, he noted that many people were grateful for any little thing they could get. “A lot of people said thank you, and really meant it,” he said.

Some questions were raised in the boys’ minds, too. “Could this whole thing be kind of futile?” Taylor asked. “I mean, we feed them for not working. Why work when you can survive on handouts? Do you think, by giving them food, we’re making them lazy?”

“But what about the old people, and the ones who are sick?” asked Gonzalo. “There are some guys who really can’t take care of themselves.”

“Those are the ones we need to have shelters for, I guess,” said Taylor.

“It would be best to help some of the others find good jobs,” offered Mark.

The boys realized that they were dealing firsthand with a social situation that has no easy answers. They’d never know what the people they’d been helping had been through. All they could see was that there seemed to be an awful lot of people in need.”

“There was no way you could judge them, and no reason to,” said Gonzalo. “You just gave something to everybody.”

What Gonzalo said brought to mind the great speech King Benjamin gave in the Book of Mormon about helping the needy. He said: “Ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.

“Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—

“But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent. …

“For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have … ?

“And now, if God, who has created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives and for all that ye have and are, doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right, … O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another” (Mosiah 4:16–19, 21).

Somehow, the strange things the priests had seen didn’t matter as much as the good things they’d done. They’d been able to ease some of the pain, if only temporarily, for some people who were suffering. They knew they’d be back to do it again, and they knew they couldn’t judge the people they were helping.

Because, deep down inside, the seed of understanding had been planted that would teach them what was really meant when King Benjamin asked, “Are we not all beggars?”

An Urge to Help?

  1. 1.

    Call your mayor’s office and ask what kind of volunteer programs are available. They’ll generally match you to the kind of programs best suited to you.

  2. 2.

    Find a needy family to anonymously adopt now. Don’t wait until Christmas. Discreetly find out about their needs and help them throughout the year.

  3. 3.

    Adopt a needy organization. For example, for a Mutual activity you could make quilts for the local homeless shelter, help with activities for boys’ and girls’ clubs, or help collect books for the pediatrics or gerontology ward at your county hospital. The possibilities are endless.

  4. 4.

    Remember that by becoming involved in community service, you are setting an example for other community members. You need to be prompt, to follow through, and to provide everything you’ve promised. Other people’s opinions of the Church could be greatly influenced, for better or worse, by your actions.

  5. 5.

    If someone says thanks, consider it a bonus. Don’t expect an expression of gratitude. Knowing that you’re fulfilling a need should be thanks enough.

[photos] Photography by Lisa A. Johnson

[photo] “One guy said, ‘It doesn’t matter what kind it is; it’s food, man, it’s food.’”—Mark

[photo] “There was one man who came up to me with a baby in his hands—a baby girl. It felt pretty good to give her something.”—Gonzalo

[photo] “You come to realize that there are an awful lot of needy people out there.”—Taylor

[photo] “Not everyone said thank you, but some did, and really meant it.”—Keith