Dinner Program Maintains Christmas Spirit Year-Round
No ornaments or wreaths adorned the walls of Sacred Heart Church on 16th St NW this holiday season. No Christmas tree stood there. But the spirit of giving is present year-round.
Every weekday, men and women come to the Sacred Heart Dinner Program. Some appear to have been beaten down by life. Some have been on the street all day. Nearly all are seeking nourishment and fellowship.
“Some are out [on the street] by choice. Others have been forced out. I’ve been forced out,” said Ricardo Brown, one of the diners at the program who also occasionally volunteers.
Brown and his fellow diners know they can obtain a meal prepared by Martha’s Table at the Dinner Program. A volunteer attorney comes every two weeks to provide referrals for program guests. Men needing a haircut receive that free. Clothing is occasionally given to Dinner Program guests. And attendees at the December holiday celebration were given hats, gloves, and socks.
When temperatures are below freezing, the program allows men and women to spend the night in the hall.
The District continues to have a homeless problem and it appears unlikely to disappear in the near future. Programs like the Sacred Heart Dinner Program helps fill a gap in the city safety net, particularly because it serves anyone. Many who come are Latino immigrants. These days, even legal but poor immigrants are on edge over the antagonism expressed by some citizens and prominent U.S. politicians toward “illegal aliens.”
The holiday season takes on even more special meaning at the Dinner Program when “Los Pasados” is performed just a few days before Christmas. A rite in Hispanic countries, “Los Pasados” reenacts the search by Joseph and Mary to find food and shelter as they seek a place to give birth to the baby Jesus.
“Los Pasados,” says Donald McCrabb, a member of the program’s all-volunteer board, “expresses the essence of the Dinner Program and the holiday. Are we willing to welcome the stranger in our midst?”
But there are challenges in running the program. One is funding, particularly since a key grant was recently lost. Simultaneously, the Dinner Program board wants to do more to help the men and women it serves. The largely volunteer staff has to hustle to prepare for serving the meals and then cleanup. There is little time for counseling, but it is needed.
McCrabb noted that many of the men and women have challenges beyond homelessness. Some have mental health problems, which includes addiction. Others may have problems obtaining jobs due to low levels of literacy or the lack of adequate education credentials. Fluency in English is another barrier to help for some guests.
Often, Latino guests of the Dinner Program are referred to the Spanish Catholic Center on nearby Monroe St NW. However, McCrabb said the Dinner Program would like to do more to “connect people to the resources they need.” The program supports Mayor Bowser’s expressed intention to make homelessness in D.C. “rare, brief, and non-recurring.”
The Dinner Program also hopes to reach out more to Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights merchants to let them know about the program.
It is common to hear wishes that every day can be a holiday such as Christmas. That spirit can be found every weekday, every week of the year, starting at 5 p.m. at the Sacred Heart Dinner Program.