One of the most compelling accounts in the New Testament is that of Jesus feeding a crowd of 4,000 people with only seven loaves of bread and a few fish. It’s a story about a miracle that illustrates what a big difference one can make with even the smallest amount of resources.
It’s also part of the inspiration for the Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen, which on Thursday marked a quarter century of service. And while the Christian parable is the namesake for the kitchen, the volunteers who work there come from all walks of life and represent more than 37 faith communities, including Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Jews.
“Compassion is not just part of the Christian faith, but is shared with humanist perspective,” said Lana Jacobs, founder of the soup kitchen. “Groups that are not Christian bring perspectives that we all need.”
Loaves and Fishes was founded in 1982 by Lana Jacobs and her husband, Steve, both members of the Catholic Worker Community. The kitchen moved to its current location, an apartment in a public housing complex at 616 Park Ave., in 1994 and is completely supported by private donations. It has served an evening meal from 5 to 6:15 p.m. every day — that’s 9,245 days for those who are counting — since it was founded.
“I think it has its role to play, and it serves a very important role for all who need it,” said Phoebe Goodman, a member of the Columbia Jewish community and a volunteer at the kitchen. “Unfortunately, in these times, more and more people are in need of food.”
The Jewish community has contributed to Loaves and Fishes since the mid-1980s.
“We have been responsible for Sunday desserts since the start,” Goodman said. “My role is to recruit people.”
The offerings from people of different faiths help contribute to the kitchen’s cause.
“We are all different communities independently working for the same goal,” said Vellore Gopalaratnam, a volunteer from the Hindu community. “What we do is serve the Columbia community in positive ways and help folks in times of need.”
At the heart of Loaves and Fishes is the spirit of equality and respect for the human condition.
“God didn’t tell me to fix people and make results,” Lana Jacobs said. “We are all just people. Whether you are an alcoholic, a drug addict, or living on the street, you are still a human being.”
There is also an inner satisfaction that volunteers derive from serving the patrons of Loaves and Fishes.
“One of the key things for us (in the Hindu community) is that service to man is service to God,” Gopalaratnam said.
Grace Vega, a Christian volunteer who served with her children, a 9-year-old and a 12-year-old, said it is a gratifying experience for the whole family.
“I get a chance to visit with people who are living (through) things I can’t imagine,” Vega said. “Serving is biblical, and that’s where we’re supposed to be.”
Jacobs is pleased that the varied groups that contribute time have come to “own” their experience there.
“I am pleased that the different groups are taking ownership over (Loaves and Fishes),” Jacobs said. “They are taking ownership of not just serving, but relationships — they know people’s names.”
The 25th anniversary of the soup kitchen followed the workings of a typical dinner. Patrons were served sandwiches, tomatoes, pickles, potato salad, coleslaw, a sheet cake big enough to widen the eyes of the guests.
“I thank the Lord for the food,” said Willie Pippins, a patron of Loaves and Fishes for a year and a half. “I pray that they get home safe.”
Through the work of volunteers, the Jacobses have worked to make Loaves and Fishes a place where guests can find peace for their bellies and a haven from harsh aspects of the world.
“People who are marginalized need to be treated well and be protected,” Jacobs said. “I always keep in mind the part in the New Testament that says, always practice hospitality because you never know when you are entertaining angels.”