Feeding the Homeless. Sheltering at Home Week 44
He’s not an ordained minister, but people on the street call him Pastor Vincent anyway.
Vincent Pannizzo came to California from New Jersey as a graduate student in ancient history at UC-Berkeley and, 22 years ago, wound up on the streets of Oakland reaching out to the city’s homeless.
Pastor Vincent says that the deliveries of food, blankets and warm clothing he makes each day are not his central mission. Nor is the help he gives with locating housing or navigating social services.
Visiting With the Homeless One on One
His mission, he insists, is bringing love to the streets of Oakland — God’s love — with one-on-one, in-person visits, consistent over time.
“God is love,” he said. “So love is the highest authority.” He and the others at Mission for the Homeless “try to love people as if we are loving God himself.”
Among the food packages Pastor Vincent delivers daily are the bags of food assembled by the families — including the youth — of my home church in the Oakland hills, St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Help From a Church in the Hills
The congregation at St. John’s has long supported food and worship outreach programs to the homeless of Oakland, but late in 2019, three church members began looking for ways to expand and deepen their own commitment.
Jerry and Bonnie Moran, along with Sallie Sadler, created what they called VISION — Volunteers in Support of Oakland’s Needs.
“Our desire was to get some food into the hands of people in the homeless camps,” Jerry said.
Soon, the three found themselves standing in a drugstore parking lot in Oakland’s Fruitvale district, meeting with Pastor Vincent. Vincent had arrived in his delivery van, which, Jerry suspects, “he kind of lives in.”
Food for the Camps
The three volunteers learned that the need in Oakland’s homeless camps was for food that didn’t need refrigeration. Food that Pastor Vincent could deliver to people he knew as well as to people he had just met at the various camps, bus stops and doorways around town.
The group met, talked and settled on a meal of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches combined with a hard boiled egg and whatever the VISON crew could pick up each week at the Alameda County Community Food Bank — fruit, shelf stable milk, juice boxes, protein bars, or pop top cans of chicken and tuna. Later, stores like Trader Joe’s, Safeway and Lucky would contribute much-needed bottled water.
"Often stereotyped as annoying, categorized as worthless, the homeless easily become objects of neglect and abuse . . . we continue to recognize them without judgment or condemnation". — Mission for the Homeless website
When Kellor Smith, the youth and family ministries director at St. John’s, heard about the VISION idea, she saw a way for the church’s youth to get involved.
“All were getting a little COVID lock-down crazy and many wanted todo a hands-on action that went directly to a person in need,” she said.
A Mission Trip Canceled
The pandemic had shut down much of the church’s youth ministry, including a mission trip to the Mexico-Texas border to work with families coming into the U.S. Kellor saw the VISION program as a way for the church’s children and teens to stay connected and to be of service.
Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? Hard boiled eggs? Kellor was pretty sure the youth of St. John’s were up to the task. Some outreach quickly resulted in sixteen families becoming part of the 45 households who ultimately participated.
Now every Thursday morning volunteers gather, outdoors when possible, at St. John’s. Masked and socially distanced, they fill 160 oversized shopping bags with items from the food bank. Later 16 or so St. John’s families will come by, each with ten homemade sandwiches and ten hardboiled eggs to place into the bags.
A similar operation is conducted at St. John’s on Wednesdays to prepare sixty bag lunches for Operation Dignity, which also serves local homeless, including veterans.
Big Bags of Food, Ready for Delivery
The fact that the St. John’s bags — large No. 8 bags from a restaurant supplier — are filled and ready to distribute to Oakland’s homeless camps is a huge help, Pastor Vincent said. On other days, the contributions from multiple sources require the time-consuming work of putting together the individual bags.
The PB & J project has been going on for eight months now, and the St. John’s families continue to find a place in their already busy routines for spreading peanut butter and boiling eggs.
Last September, one St. John’s teen pointed out to his mother that school would be starting up soon and “I won’t have to time to make the sandwiches.”
But then he added, “Oh, wait. They are hungry every day . . . I will fit it in each week.”
This story was originally published on Barbara's website, BarbaraFalconerNewhall.com, where she posts her weekly Riffs on Life. A long-time member of St. John's, Barbara is the author of "Wrestling with God: Stories of Doubt and Faith," which includes a fascinating interview with former St. John's parishioner Geoff Machin.