Where Hunger Never Stops
Zacchaeus Community Kitchen

A Charity's Regular Volunteers Reflect on the Day After

By Michael Kernan
Washington Post Staff Writer

They were breaking down the doors of the Zacchaeus Community Kitchen on Thanksgiving morning—the volunteers, that is.

By 8:30 a.m. the cramped basement rooms at 945 G St. NW were packed with helpers. A stream of people with L.L. Bean jackets and beatific faces, some towing cross-looking children, poured in hoping to get to slice cranberry jelly or peel yams. "We turned away at least 200 volunteers," said one staffer.

More than 700 homeless people were served a holiday dinner. The homeless were back again yesterday 400 of them.

There were three volunteers at work.

"We always get people from Blessed Sacrament out on Chevy Chase Circle," said Mack ("That's it: Mack), a grizzled veteran in baseball cap and T-shirt who has been on the job here for five years. "There's some Protestants too. And Carroll High School sends about tour kids every weekday."

It's not how many helpers you get, he says, it's having a few who know what they're doing.

Some of the regulars are homeless themselves. Voluntarily or otherwise.

Pigtailed Helen Thomas, the cook "at the moment was pouring a huge bowl of chicken bits into a pot. Zacchaeus gets chicken bones from fast-food companies and picks them over for meat.

There is plenty of turkey on Thanksgiving and Christmas, but the rest of the year meat is hard to come by. (A decent carving knife would be nice, too. Even the cheeriest volunteers can get irritated carving a turkey with a paring knife.)

Thomas comes in every Friday to work from about 7 a.m. to l p.m. Like many other volunteers for the poor, she is a peace activist. It's a question of priorities, she said, and too many people's priorities are skewed.

Does she live in town?

"I live in my body," she said, "and work in the park with the Peace Park Vigilers. We perceive helping the poor as an integral part of peace."

She is one of the permanent witnesses for peace at the Peace Park, otherwise known as Lafayette Park. Her group recently was moved from in; front of the White House to the less conspicuous north end of the park.

Zacchaeus needs vegetables, she said. Also spices of all kinds. Because no one knows what will be donated when, the cooking has to be imaginative.

Zacchaeus also needs sleeping bags.

'This time of year in D C. alone there are 10,000 to 12,000 people who don't have a shelter. The bags are practical because they're portable and they zip up."

Cramped or not, the kitchen looks efficient, with its giant vats, its industrial stove, its shelves of donated canned foods. People go about their work with few words. Everyone seems to know what to do.

Marcia Timmel of the Olive Branch Catholic Workers Committee is coordinator at the kitchen Tuesday through Friday. She was a communications professor at West Florida University, took a sabbatical in 1978 and never went back. Her husband, Paul Magno, started coming here 14 years ago with his theology class at Georgetown University. Their friend Joe Byrnes was a seminarian who decided this was where he was needed most.

"We're committed to voluntary poverty," she said. Their daughter Sarah is 2. She comes in with them and helps fill saltshakers and sometimes stands by the door to shake hands.

"Her presence has really mellowed this place out," her mother said.

The kitchen serves mostly men and about 40 of them were sitting at the dozen tables scattered around the basement room that Zacchaeus rents from the First Congregational Church. They were eating turkey soup and sandwiches.

The Congregationalists have a dinner program for homeless women here five days a week. The reason women have their own is that the men sometimes harass them.

"The men rough on the women? The culture is rough on women, is what it is," Timmel said.

Sometimes families come in for a meal, sometimes single fathers with their children. Coffee machines were set up in a corner, and once a customer called out for more cups. A young woman named Mary Ware called back: They were on the way.

Working deftly, she rinsed plastic cups and bowls, stacks of them in endless succession, and ranged them in holders for the dishwashing machine. A finished load pushed out the other end in a cloud of steam.

She has been coming here for six months.

"I've just been coming down," she said "I saw the need"