By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published July 5, 2023
ATLANTA—As a church bell gonged 6 p.m., Brother Praveen Turaka set off around the block in downtown Atlanta to invite people to dinner
“Food is ready, brother, please come,” said the robed Capuchin Franciscan priest to men and women sitting on the church steps and beside grocery carts and bedrolls. “Come, we have pasta tonight.”
To reach more people without housing, a food truck is parking in downtown Atlanta to meet them where they are.
“Food for the Body and Soul” and an image of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Clare of Assisi cover the converted Ford box truck. The truck pulls into the parking lot beside the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception twice a week to deliver dinner.
On a recent Thursday, Monica Gonzalez, 45, gave out pasta with meat sauce, cooked carrots and a garden salad. The crowd of mostly men helped themselves to a Mexican pastry dessert and bananas. A young man from the Georgia Tech Catholic Center helped also.
A man named Tim got in line. Brother Praveen had just invited him as he sat in the doorway at the neighboring Central Presbyterian Church. Tim had high praise. He said the priests and others working with them are kind and generous.
“They treat us right. They do good. Everybody’s glad to see them,” he said.
Gonzalez, who worships at Holy Trinity Church in Peachtree City, said she feels an affinity for the diners because she has worried herself about buying the next meal or paying the next bill.
“I’m a single mom so I know life is hard,” she said.
Downtown Atlanta’s sidewalks and highway underpasses are home to people sleeping in camping tents. According to the annual 2023 Point-in-Time count conducted in the city, people experiencing homelessness in Atlanta numbered 2,679. That’s down from 3,572 five years ago.
The hot meal fills a gap for people in the neighborhood. Church members distribute sandwiches, snacks and coffee in the morning. During the winter, the church collaborates to run a men’s homeless shelter.
But more than just for people who are homeless, the truck can fill a gap for folks stretching their dollars. The Atlanta Community Food Bank calculated the 2021 Food insecurity Rate in its 29-county service area, finding 1 in 9 people live in a household unable to provide enough food for every person to live an active and healthy life.
The Franciscan Capuchin community runs the food truck ministry that took two years to roll out. The Capuchins intentionally came to the Archdiocese of Atlanta in 2020 to meet people living on the street.
“We want to work with the poor. We want to work with the homeless, in this case. We want to accompany them and build relationships with them, getting to know them and getting to know their story,” said Brother Robert Pérez. He said the mission is to ensure the men and women “know they are cared for, and God cares about them.”
The friars in their distinctive brown robes tied with rope belts introduce themselves as brother instead of the title of father.
Ministry serves as a beacon of hope
Food trucks had already been repurposed into ministry hubs by Capuchin communities in Denver, Boston and California before the community here borrowed the idea. Individuals and parishes contributed the $72,000 to buy the truck and convert it to a mobile kitchen with a stovetop, sinks, oven and refrigerator. It took nearly two years to get through the red tape with the multiple required permits, from fire safety to food health.
In a rented commercial kitchen in Tucker, the two priests prepare about 100 meals, pack up the truck then motor down to the historic red brick church to swing open the large service window in the church parking lot every Monday and Thursday.
The menu’s focus is comfort food: pasta, baked chicken and chili, always with a side of vegetables. The truck volunteers want the men and women to enjoy the food and take seconds, if available. The simple menu is still being tested.
Alice Rodriguez, 58, also comes up from Peachtree City to volunteer. She often is accompanied by her niece, Noemy. It is a blessing to have the chance to help and greet the people she has befriended, Rodriguez said.
“I find that a place of peace and joy,” she said in a phone call. “If you are able to see that, you want to go back.”
She’s served alongside the Franciscans for nearly two years, first delivering sandwiches on foot around the neighborhood. When she’s at the window serving people the plates, the guests say how grateful they are, Rodriguez said.
“I know God loves them, and they are God’s children, like me,” she said. “In the end, we are brothers and sisters.”