July 23, 2010

'Let go and let God': Leap of faith lets volunteer lend a ‘helping hand’ to Hispanic families

As the founder of a grassroots group that helps the poor, Tim Hahn, second from the right, has learned that his efforts to help others work best when he puts his trust in God. Here, Hahn stands between Amy Moore and 10-year-old Alexander Simons as people in line select the food they want for their families. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

As the founder of a grassroots group that helps the poor, Tim Hahn, second from the right, has learned that his efforts to help others work best when he puts his trust in God. Here, Hahn stands between Amy Moore and 10-year-old Alexander Simons as people in line select the food they want for their families. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

After 15 failed attempts at making his dream come true, Tim Hahn knew he was down to two very different choices.

He could give up the dream, but there was something about growing up in Holy Cross Parish in Indianapolis that had always taught him to keep fighting to beat the odds.

So Hahn considered his other choice as he stood outside The Fresh Market on the north side of Indianapolis. In the previous few weeks, he had already been to 15 grocery stores in the Indianapolis area, hoping to get a store manager to agree to donate surplus food so that he could fulfill his wish to help feed the poor.

Yet Hahn had been turned down every time.

“I realized I’m not a good salesman,” Hahn recalls. “I stood out in front of that store knowing it’s my last chance and thinking it’s not going to work. I said, ‘Jesus, I’m obviously doing something wrong. So I’m just going to move my lips and let you do the talking.’ I went in the store and that’s exactly what happened. I talked to the manager, and within 60 seconds he’s nodding his head.”

Still amazed by that moment, Hahn pauses before he adds, “I think Jesus is so grateful when people help other people. I think he just says, ‘Of course, I’ll help. Just get out of the way.’ I’ve learned to get out of the way. I’ve learned to take the leap of faith.”

Destined to help

For the past two years, Hahn has been building a grassroots, non-profit

organization called Helping Hand—a volunteer effort that provides needed food for the predominantly Hispanic families who live near his home in Westfield, Ind. And every step of the way has led to another story that has shown him the value of the adage, “Let go, and let God.”

Just consider the story of how the 67-year-old Hahn found the site where he would give food to the poor, and how he found the people he believes that he was destined to help.

In the spring of 2008, Hahn and his wife of 42 years, Linda, were driving to a produce stand in Hamilton County shortly after he had received the unexpected blessing from the store manager. That’s when Hahn saw a grassy area and a parking lot that he thought would be a perfect site for distributing the food.

“It was right next to this roadhouse bar,” Hahn recalls. “I told my wife that’s where we’re going to set up the stand. She didn’t say anything so I knew she didn’t agree with me. I stopped and went in the bar. It’s a rough place. I talked to the woman behind the bar and told her I wanted to give away food in the parking lot on Saturdays. She looked at me, walked away and waited on three more customers. Then she came back and said, ‘What did you say?’

“I told her and added, ‘I know you open at noon, and I’ll be gone by then. And I need to borrow your picnic table.’

“She walked away again and waited on three more people. She came back again, and she was wringing her hands with this towel. She said, ‘You know, that’s the best idea I’ve heard all day. OK.’

“I turned around and this guy stood up. He was six-foot-six so it took him a while. He said, ‘What are you going to do?’ I said, ‘I’m going to give food away in that parking lot. You want to help?’ He gave me five bucks—my first tithe—and he pointed to a trailer behind the bar and said, ‘That lady broke her leg. She probably needs help.’ I saw all the other trailers there, and knew that’s where the poor were. We showed up the next week.”

Wings of trust

While Hahn’s leaps of faith have led him to moments that have made him soar, he has also had a few difficult landings.

One notable situation occurred three months after he started his effort.

As nearly 70 people lined up for food on a Saturday morning that began in gorgeous sunshine, Hahn noticed a group of men who stood away from the crowd, watching the scene. He figured the men had relatives in line, but they felt awkward about seeing their families receive help. Soon, he was distracted by a young boy and an older woman who had problems that couldn’t be solved with a bag of groceries. His growing frustration overflowed when it started raining.

“It was depressing to me,” recalls Hahn, the father of three grown children and grandfather of six. “I looked over toward where the men had been standing and they were gone. I thought, ‘Thanks a lot.’ We tried to protect ourselves and the food as best we could, but it wasn’t working. I was mad at God for making it rain on me. Then the men who had been standing away reappeared with a big plastic sheet, and they held it up while everyone else went through the line.

“I responded with a one-word prayer to God: ‘Sorry.’ ”

The moment reinforced for Hahn that leaps of faith are held up by wings of trust.

“Tim and his wife have made a monumental effort here,” says Judy Doran, a volunteer who is a member of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Carmel, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese. “He says a prayer of thanks with everyone before people go through the line. He’ll celebrate birthdays, and give rewards to the children who have good report cards. It’s not just giving out food. It’s conversation and getting to know the people.”

Hahn has learned that the mostly Hispanic people that he and his volunteers serve had to learn to trust him.

“You start noticing these people are really poor,” says Hahn, who has returned to his roots to become a member of Holy Cross Parish again. “But they’re smiling at you. You start to learn their names and the problems they have. You start by handing out bread, but if you think it ends there, you’re wrong. It just starts there. It’s just Jesus baiting you in. You have to show people you care first.”

Two years later, the caring often extends beyond the food.

“In the winter, a lady called me over,” he recalls. “It’s cold, and her heat is off, and she has three kids. It’s a Saturday morning and the best I can do is to get the heat back on by Monday. I took her bill. I always take the bill, instead of giving cash. And when I get home, I can’t tell you how many times there has been a check in the mailbox.

“The other day, I had just paid a gas bill of 98 dollars and some cents. I went home and got the mail out of the mailbox, and there was a check for 100 bucks from a guy I hadn’t seen in a year or two. And he was saying, ‘I hope things are good.’ ”

Life is good for Hahn—partly because of the different approach to life that he has chosen.

‘Why wouldn’t I want to do that?’

For most of his career, he worked in safety management, always making sure that people were following the necessary rules and regulations to keep them safe in the businesses where he worked. Now, his ministry to the poor is done without a safety net. And the leaps of faith he makes have led him even closer to people and to God.

“Here’s my credo: Jesus said so many times, ‘Blessed are the poor.’ He never said that about the rich or the middle class. So why wouldn’t I want part of that blessing by helping?” he says.

“Along with that, when you do this, you see Jesus in these people. And look at all the time he spent with the poor, talking with them, laughing with them, helping them. So why wouldn’t I want to do that? I think if he chose 2010 to be here, he’d be in a place like this.”

So Hahn and his volunteers show up most Saturdays, except for the first one of each month. They distribute food now behind the Westfield Playhouse or inside it, depending on the weather. Sometimes the people they help bring them coffee and homemade Mexican pastries.

“Tim doesn’t do anything for recognition,” says Jake Carpenter, a volunteer who is a member of St. Susanna Parish in Plainfield. “He’s like I am. We feel blessed and we have good families. He has the biggest heart in the world.”

Hahn encourages the people he serves to learn the English language, directing them to lessons at Centennial Baptist Church in Westfield. In return, he has started to take lessons in Spanish.

He also hopes to expand his food ministry in the future by creating other distribution sites around Indianapolis.

It’s another leap of faith.

“There are people in office buildings who do great things,” he says. “But it’s in the trenches for me. That’s where Christ was.”

(Anyone wanting more information about Helping Hand can contact Tim Hahn at 317-714-5582.)

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