Sunday, December 11, 2011

2011-12-11 "Middle of the night meals continue for those in need" by Rich Freedman from "Vallejo Times-Herald"
Saturday morning, 2:15 a.m., Nov. 26 -
When most men their age only arise in the wee hours to visit the restroom, Pastors Al Marks and Mike Brown use the night's dead zone to continue serving God -- by serving food to the destitute, the prostitute and the wanderer.
Every Friday night -- technically, Saturday morning -- from 2 to 4 a.m., Marks and Brown leave their wives to serve soup, barbecue chicken, and a bag lunch for the next day. And, typically, 40 to 80 of the community's struggling seize the meal and a moment of camaraderie.
And that's the way it's been since 1999 for Marks and, a year later, for Brown.
Benevolence comes with a price. Mostly, for the devoted First Baptist Church pastors, it's sleep. It's tough to get up so early more than a few times along the way and face the grill.
"How many Friday nights have there been between then and now?" said a grinning Marks. "Usually, the alarm snatches me out of sleep."
The pastors look at each other. Marks, at 60, and Brown, 59, realize they're rare birds in the theology aviary.
"It's not part of our job description," Marks said. "It's part of what we have to do. It's part of what we want to do."
It started unsuspectingly, this whole Sparrow Project. It was even later -- about 4:30 a.m. -- in 1999 when a pest man waiting for his shift was approached by a prostitute in downtown Vallejo.
"I'll do anything you want for $50," she reportedly said. Rejected, she kept lowering the price.
"He said, 'Why would you do that to yourself?'" as Marks tells the story.
"She was hungry, so he gave her some of his lunch," Marks said.
The pest man came to see Marks that Monday, asking what he could do. For the longest time, the man and his wife traveled from Winters every Saturday morning to serve food in front of the church.
"Whatever we had, we made," Marks said. "Them and me."
The late-night meal has been served every week, every year. Only one New Year's was the food unavailable. A few dozen hungry remained hungry.
"I realized that was a mistake," Marks said. "The first week, we had five people. And at least 25 since. We knew right away we were going to be here for the long haul. So we've been here every Friday night/Saturday morning since."
After some inclement weather a few years ago, the chicken and soup serving moved down near an overhang in back of the Sonoma Boulevard church. Metal folding chairs are available, though most choose to stand. Some use the shelter to catch a nap. Or grab a cup of coffee to warm their hands.
"It's interesting," Marks said. "We haven't had too many nights where the weather was bad. Sometimes it's rained. For the most part, the weather's been very kind to us."
Marks excuses himself for a minute to tend to the flame.
"This chicken doesn't cook itself," he said.
It's nearing 3 a.m., the usual time the chicken is placed on a paper plate and handed to a long line of the hungry. Most have already savored the vegetable, rice and meat soup that is scooped up starting at 2:15.
Some of the homeless are short term, some seemingly permanent.
"Some just have hard times making ends meet," Marks said. "Some live in their cars. They know we're here and they'll come by. Some little bit of food helps."
Though Brown joined the serving a year into the program, "we depend on each other," Marks said. "None of this would happen if Pastor Mike weren't here. It may have started before he was here, but I don't know how long I would have kept it going. Not everyone has the heart for this."
Plenty of volunteers serve the free daytime lunches and Sunday early-evening dinners at First Baptist, but only the courageous can handle the 2 to 4 a.m. assignment.
"A lot just don't want to come out at 2 in the morning," Marks said. "That's OK. Not everyone's called out to do this."
For many hard-luck diners, it's as much part of the close-knit family of homeless as much as the free food, Marks said.
"It's fellowship for people. A lot come to see each other," he said. "You watch and see, they're very gracious to one another. It's a good group of people here."
Sure, every so often, someone has had a bit too much alcohol when meandering down to the barbecue. But it's rare, Marks said.
"For the most part, people who are up and hungry come to get something good to eat and have a little fellowship," he said. "They watch out for each other. Maybe a few don't like us and we have a hard time with them. Most are just wonderful people."
Most of the 40 on this night were men. A few women.
"Some are women of the street. Some are just poor," Marks said.
Marks drives about three miles to get to the church. Brown lives a few feet away.
"That's why he's always late," joked Marks.
For some, it's as close as they want to be to attending church. Others, said Marks, "know the Lord. They just made stupid decisions. Some are down on their luck and it's not because of a decision they made."
What do other men of God think about the two pastors getting up in the middle of the night every Friday?
"They probably think we're crazy," Marks grinned.
One doesn't. Pastor Michael Mau of Benicia Fellowship Church said Brown and Marks "are doing exactly what Jesus would be doing in Vallejo today; meeting the people of the night where they live. Rather than asking those men and women to come into their church and meet them, they are gong to the people and meeting them where they are trying to survive. They are touching their world in a very real way without any expectation."
The pastors, continued Mau, "are my spiritual brothers and I love them, pray for them, and serve alongside them whenever I can. They are doing what the church is called to do."
It's not going unnoticed, at least by the ones they serve.
"They are just grateful to have food and tell us so," Marks said.
The meal could be a rare one, said Brown.
"They might have had one meal yesterday, might get one today," he said.
This night was only a few hours after Black Friday began for many department stores. Brown was unfettered by millions tossing down credit cards for purchases of material possessions. To a point.
"When people do things right and they work and they take care of themselves and don't spend money on foolish things, I say, go to the stores," he said.
What Brown has learned in the 11 years of late-night serving is that "everybody's got a story. Things don't look like what you see on the outside. I learn that when people become real honest with themselves and with other people, they change."
Hunger often humbles, he added.
"Sometimes, these people come out and they act tough and run their mouth," Brown said. "But when they come here, most are honest with themselves because they're on the same stage. They put down their guard and don't pretend. Everybody's in the same boat."
Every late night, Marks gives his "minute message" of a quick prayer, circling the hungry for a few moments. The entire time, he knows he's covered.
"Pastor Mike's always looking out for me," Marks said.

Saturday morning, 2:15 a.m., Dec. 3 -
They're back. The pastors, that is. And roughly 30, 35 hungry and homeless. One man approaches Marks, who has soup duties.
"I know what you want -- some soup," Marks said with his southern accent culled from years in Atlanta.
"Oh yeah, that's what I come for," said another satisfied customer.
It's getting into winter, though it was an oddly warm day. The wind remains at bay until whipping around at 3 a.m. It doesn't bother Marks, who spent time in upstate New York and Colorado.
"I can take this through March," he said. "This is a cupcake. This is not cold. Upstate New York is as cold as I want to be in my life."
Marks and Brown catch a volunteer break on this night. Jim Marabilla, 35, gladly runs the grill.
"God has given me my blessings," Marabilla said. "It's my turn to share. He has taken care of me for all my life. And some people need my help."
There are more women tonight. Perhaps five or six. But no kids.
"That's a good thing," Marks said.
It's tough when there are kids, the pastors agree.
Marks knows some of the names of the homeless. Brown recalls many, having worked the Sparrow Project's lunch programs.
"It's interesting when I do know somebody's name, I like to call 'em," Marks said. "When we first started, there was someone named 'Chris.' He said, 'You remembered my name!' Just having their name remembered is important. A lot of self-esteem is lost being on the street."
It's time for the "blessing of the chicken," as Marks gathers the troops.
Christmas is around the corner, he reminds everyone.
"It's good to see your faces," Marks said. "Remember to be grateful."
"I've had people call this 'being at church,'" Marks said. "For a lot of them, this is as much 'church' as they get."
The line forms. Marabilla delivers the chicken. Within a half hour, the area is nearly vacated. One man, leaning against a wall, sleeps.
"If you'll excuse me, I have to wash the pot, " Marks said, disappearing around the corner.

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