SANTIAGO – Dawn breaks in the city of Santiago de Chile. Amid the hustle and bustle of the waking city, a narrow wooden door welcomes in the “dear brothers of the street,” as they are affectionately called.
They come in an orderly line and receive their first meal of the day, at a little known building that marks the first stop on the “spoon trail.”
While most people pass by, hurrying on their way without a second glance, those who live on the streets of Santiago know where to stop for the meals they need to survive throughout the day.
The first is the San Antonio de Padua soup kitchen, a small facility located at San Francisco Church in the Alameda area of Santiago. Each weekday, it welcomes about 50 men and women, offering free milk, tea and bread to everyone who asks.
Enrique Carrasco has been a volunteer at the kitchen for three years, and is one of the few that is able to work every weekday.
He and the four other volunteers present say they are moved by “the love of the Lord,” which encourages them not just to offer “a warm meal” every morning, but also to bring their brothers and sisters on the street the Good News of Christ who “is always awaiting them.”
“We are make sure to pray an Our Father and a Hail Mary to bless the food, for these dear people (…) We want them to know that the Lord loves them and that he also awaits them so they can regain their footing in life,” he told CNA.
As a sign of love, the group of volunteers pays attention to every detail. The small room – holding just four tables, a dishwasher and some furniture – is decorated for every liturgical feast. Enrique notes with pride that this year, for the first time, they began a weekly catechesis, which will allow one of the men to make his First Communion.
When noon comes, it’s the Padre Pio kitchen run by Our Lady of America chapel in the San Ramón area that opens its doors. The second stop on the “spoon trail,” it is most well-known for the visit made by Saint John Paul II on April 2, 1987, an encounter that resulted in the dedication of the church of Jesus Lord of Life Parish seven years later.
There are five volunteers at the San Pio kitchen. They begin early in their preparations for lunchtime, when they open their doors to serve some 50 people on the streets, as well as the elderly who live alone on the south side of the capital.
In an orderly fashion, each person coming to eat gives their name, pays 300 pesos (46 cents) if they are able to do so, and gets a spoon if they do not have one with them.
Alina Alcaino has been a volunteer at San Pio for more than 10 years, ever since Fr. Pablo Palma, who founded the soup kitchen, invited her.
“You can’t eat a plate of food knowing that others have nothing,” she told CNA. “When I came to serve at the kitchen, I realized what kind of poverty there is. It made me cry.”
Alcaino now works as the coordinator of the facility. “Since I like to cook, I do it with all my heart knowing that the best recompense is to receive a smile, that gives joy to the soul, it’s a spiritual reward.”
The Padre Pio soup kitchen – and more than 35 others like it that are sponsored by parishes in the Archdiocese of Santiago – is maintained by donations of money and supplies made by hundreds of the faithful, as well as the time of more than 250 volunteers.
Every day, the kitchen seeks to live out what Pope Francis described as three pillars for those who serve the most impoverished: trust in God who provides; observe the situation and be creative in the face of difficulties; and be prompt.
“Thanks be to God and Padre Pio that we’re here, that we’re cooking,” Alcaino said. “No one tells us: ‘Don’t worry, girls, we’ve got food to the end of the year.’ Divine Providence provides through the donors. We need to know how to distribute (the resources), we need to be creative, all so that none of them go hungry.”
Felipe Vicuna, another volunteer, has witnessed the “not-so-pretty” side of the soup kitchens, which at times can include bad odors, insults and fights.
“The soup kitchen is a way of fully experiencing mercy, there’s a lot of people carrying a lot of baggage, and here you can at least renew their spirits. A plate of food feeds them, but in the end, it renews their hearts and ours.”
Night falls in Santiago, and the more than 12,000 homeless people across the country go their separate ways. Some will find a final meal at one of the other Catholic-run soup kitchens in the area. Others will spend the night alone, with no food and no company.
When encountering people living on the streets – sometimes plagued by alcoholism or drug addictions, abandonment or mental illness – what should one do?
Ignacia Lecaros, a volunteer at the Padre Pio kitchen, offered advice beyond simply giving food or material aid.
“Treat them with dignity, don’t put up walls…empathize with them,” Lecaros said. “You have to look at them like you would look at your brother. Many of them are grateful that you look them in the eyes, that you greet them with affection. It’s a gesture that gives joy and inner hope that costs us nothing.”