Feed Your Neighborhood
Kris White oversees the Barnabas Ministry that offers showers, warm food and words of encouragement
It’s 32 degrees outside on a Thursday at 6:30am. Kris White opens the glass door to the Sebastopol Christian Church and starts setting up folding chairs; some for outside and others inside the small lobby. All bundled up, Charles is standing rigidly by the door but when he sees Kris, he helps out with a few chairs. Nick, who was there early, is already in the shower. He has 12 minutes to finish up.
A tall man with waves of white hair and a deep voice, Kris wakes up ready to serve. He knows what to do because he’s done it many times before. However, that doesn’t mean that everything will go perfectly. Walking back to the kitchen, he looks at the coffee maker and groans. He moves quickly to mop up a spill. He forgot to place a carafe to catch the drip coffee and it has spilled over the counter, in what looks to be an ad for absorbent paper towels. Kris swiftly contains the expanding spill with cloth towels.
Once he has a full pot of coffee, he pours it into the dispenser near the door, closest to where he will serve it. “We have our own coffee,” says Kris, pointing to a logo on the dispenser that says Barnabas, the biblical name of the ministry program. The logo is a coffee bean with a halo and wings. He explains that Barnabas means “people giving encouragement to others.”
“I know how everyone likes their coffee,” he says. He will greet each person by name and first hand them a coffee. He welcomes Michael who likes his coffee black. Michael sits down to wait for breakfast, looking relaxed. Kris goes to the refrigerator and takes out a casserole dish that holds a baked frittata. Church members made several of these dishes in advance. He cuts up the frittata into individual servings and puts one plate in the microwave and punches “123” on the timer. When it is done, he ladles salsa on top and delivers it to Michael in the lobby.
Nick is out of the shower, a young man now clean with wet, dark hair. He takes his coffee with cream and sugar. He sits sits down and starts talking to Michael and Charles. Kris says in the kitchen that Charles is a constant stream of news. “He’s our CNN or Fox News,” said Kris. Hearing his name, Charles pops his head into the kitchen to say that he heard what Kris said about him.
Scott is next in the shower and Kris writes his name down on a log that he keeps. He knows when to expect a person and what to do if they don’t show up. “If they have a cellphone,” says Kris, “I have their number and I’ll check on them.” Michael lives in his car and works at Sunrise Cafe, but he’s off today. “Are you going out to Bodega Bay?” Kris asks him. Michael says that driving to the coast is what he plans to do on his day off. Someone asks him if whales are now at the coast? Michael says: “Not for four months or so. Back then there were a lot of whales – and dolphins.”
On the counter in the small kitchen, there are about 20 sack lunches, packed with two sandwiches, and some snacks. “I like to make sure there’s at least one applesauce,” says Kris. “If I put an orange in the bag, they won’t eat it,” he adds, like a mother packing healthy school lunches for her kids. “If I cut it up for them and put it on their plate for breakfast, they’ll eat it.”
Kris picks up his food from the Redwood Gospel Mission Food Bank and fills the bed of his large white truck. He shows me the receipt for all the food he picked up and proudly notes how little he had to pay for all of it. Also, in the pantry, there’s dog food supplied by the Humane Society because some people need to feed their pets. He has a few sleeping bags and tents to hand out. “The biggest thing is socks – dry, clean socks,” said Kris.
A few moments later, an older woman named Anne walks in, wearing a warm coat and plush boots. Kris asks her if she wants a coffee. “What I really need is socks,” says Anne. “My feet are cold and wet.” Kris goes into a closet and comes out with a box of socks and Anne finds a pair that she likes and leaves to put them on. When she comes back, Kris asks her about Steve, her disabled son that she takes care of. She doesn’t explain where Steve is but talks about a person who gave her a stack of lumber that she doesn’t know what to do with. It could be made into some kind of shelter, she says, but she has no way of moving it.
Nick, before leaving, gets a sack lunch and some leftover frittata for his dog, Wally, a Husky. Kris says goodbye: “Have a blessed day.” A few minutes later, Nick is outside sorting and re-sorting all the stuff that he carries with him on a makeshift pushcart that wobbles on five wheels. Kris says that Nick is from Rohnert Park; a woman told him to come to Sebastopol because there were better services here and she put his stuff in her truck and brought him here. Recently, Nick said he wanted to go live in Petaluma and Kris offered to take him in his truck but then Nick decided to stay put. When I look again outside, Nick is gone, as if he magically disappeared, with all his stuff, his wobbly cart and Wally.
“Love your neighbor,” Kris explains, when I ask him why he does this work. “Feed your neighborhood. It’s what you’re supposed to do.” I don’t know that it fully explains why Kris and the other church members who join him do this work, so doggedly and cheerfully. Kris has been running the Barnabas program regularly for a year, but he has been involved in this work at Sebastopol Christian Church for over ten years. The Church used to provide breakfast and showers every day. “We stopped for a year because there were people shooting up in the showers,” he said. He said something about Satan getting in the way but I didn’t press him. Now the Barnabas Ministry offers showers and breakfast every Monday and Thursday. They are also one of four or five churches that offer a Saturday BBQ dinner at noon with each church doing it once a month. This Saturday, Kris will be grilling a 100 hamburgers and he has Beyond burgers for those who don’t eat meat.
Rainbow, heavily bearded and wearing a hooded parka, waits for his turn in the shower, sitting in the lobby with a coffee in hand. He lives in a trailer that doesn’t have hot water. Charles comes out of the shower. Kris says: “Rainbow, you’re up” and hands him a towel and reminds him that he has 12 minutes in the shower.
A member of the church, Michael, has come in to help out. Mike wears a golf cap and will spend an hour here before going out golfing. He recognizes most of the people coming in but he doesn’t know them like Kris does. He has to ask them how they like their coffee. Rainbow comes out of the shower and he looks like a different person, without the shell of a bulky parka and in bare feet. Scott asks if he can have another helping and Kris obliges him. Noah goes into the shower and Kris marks down the time on the log.
J shows up at 7:50 am, looking half-asleep. Kris has been waiting for him to arrive and tells J that he’s late. “I slept in for some reason,’ says J. I recognize J from the article in the Sebastopol Times about him. (Kris thinks I wrote the article but I tell him twice that Steve Einstein wrote it.) Like Michael, J lives in his car and works at Sunrise Cafe. J begins telling bad jokes and nobody laughs but he has everyone’s attention. “I love making people laugh,” says J. Kris and several others tell him: “You’re the only person laughing, J.” J laughs at that. He doesn’t need a sack lunch because he’s working later in the day.
There are printed handouts that promote other services available in town. One is Laundry Day–Tuesday from 9am to noon at the Hi-Tide Laundromat near Fircrest Market. “One wash and one dry per person,” the handout says. “We’ll provide the quarters and the soap as well.” Another handout is from the Sebastopol Public Library, promoting Social Service Day, which is every third Tuesday from 1-3pm. Come talk to county workers about financial aid, CalFresh, housing assistance and free telephone service.
Three-fourths of the people that the Barnabas Ministry serves are men. A few people live in their vehicles but most of the them like Nick live “out in the bush.” Several people come from the Village Trailer Park or Horizon Shine. Some use the safe parking site at the Sebastopol Community Church. Kris emphasizes that not everyone who takes advantage of the program’s services is homeless. Some like Rainbow don’t have access to hot water where they live.
The Barnabas Ministry serves lunch every day, although Monday through Thursday are busiest. That’s about 175-200 lunches a week. Once a month, during breakfast time, someone comes to offer haircuts for free. Social workers from West County Community Services come by regularly and talk with people.
Another Michael arrives, a kind young man from Bodega Bay, who is willing to lead group meditation services. He sets up a side room for anyone who is interested and makes himself a cup of tea while he waits.
A quiet young man who might go by the name Tsunami didn’t want a shower. He wanted breakfast without any meat in it. Kris found him something and asked him if he wanted salsa on it. “Only a little,” said Tsunami who wore a bright t-shirt with a tiger on it. He thanked Kris for the plate. Noah asked for his sack lunch. “Would you like an extra sandwich?” asked Kris and Noah nodded. Kris tries to make each person think they are getting them something extra, and he adds something just a little special for everybody.
Going to the refrigerator, Kris pulls out a slab of pastrami and unwraps it. Kris shows Michael, the church member, how to cut the meat for sandwiches. He pulls out a block of Provolone cheese which will be paired with the pastrami. A group from the Rotary also make sandwiches; Kris shows me a refrigerator shelf full of sandwiches. The Rotary members get together for a regular meeting at a person’s home and they make sandwiches together as a project. Kris is grateful to Sebastopol Sunrise Rotary who generously provide the money to buy food and supplies. “They help so much,” says Kris.
Kris offers Tsunami a bag lunch with two PB&J sandwiches. While Tsunami is looking in the bag, Kris goes to the freezer and pulls out a pre-made dinner. “It’s vegan and gluten-free,” says Kris, handing it to him. “Thanks,” says Tsunami, turning over the package. “Have it for dinner tonight,” says Kris.
There are notes on the wall thanking all those who provide the program’s services. One note is from a mother whose son was homeless. “You fed him, clothed him, helped him get back home,” she wrote. Others are pictures of people who have passed through, some of whom have died. Each person is a story that’s remembered by Kris and others.
I ask Kris about this patchwork of services for the homeless in Sebastopol, all provided by local churches in the community – breakfast and lunch at one place, parking at another, laundry on Tuesdays. He agreed it somehow works but it’s not perfect. I asked him if it was ever frustrating to him. Yes, he said. “I see all the money the government is spending on the homeless, and I wonder where the money is going. It isn’t going to the homeless.”
Bobby walks in at 8:25am wearing work boots. He works regularly at ACE Hardware but has also been working a construction job in San Francisco for 17 days straight. That explains why they hadn’t seen Bobby is a long while. “I’m slightly burned out,” Bobby says, holding his black coffee and sitting down in the lobby. Another man came out of the shower, toweling off his wiry hair. I took his smile as a sign that he felt better head to toe. He asks about meditation and Kris points the way to the side room, nudging him. “This is good for you,” says Kris.
By 8:30am, it has warmed up to 40 degrees outside.
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Feed Your Neighborhood