October 14, 2022

Parish’s new food trailer feeds homeless and nourishes the souls of its volunteers

As the director of the Emmaus Ministry at St. John the Evangelist Parish in downtown Indianapolis that serves the homeless, Danielle Heitkamp stands in front of the parish’s new, deluxe food trailer that is key to that effort. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

As the director of the Emmaus Ministry at St. John the Evangelist Parish in downtown Indianapolis that serves the homeless, Danielle Heitkamp stands in front of the parish’s new, deluxe food trailer that is key to that effort. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

The quote that’s emblazoned on the new, deluxe food trailer that’s in the parking lot of St. John the Evangelist Church in downtown Indianapolis serves as a constant reminder to Danielle Heitkamp of the best way to feed people who are homeless.

She also views the quote as the best way to feed her own soul.

The quote declares, “Blessed are you when you walk with Jesus.”

“It’s a way for me and our volunteers to know we’re not just here to feed them, but to form relationships with them, to get to know them,” says Heitkamp, who uses the words “our neighbors” when talking about the nearly 1,800 people who are homeless in Indianapolis. “Just as Jesus was walking along with the two men to Emmaus, we are very blessed to get to walk with our neighbors and Jesus ourselves.”

At 26, Heitkamp is the director of the parish’s Emmaus Ministry, its outreach effort to help people in need. While the food trailer, which opened in early September, expands the parish’s capability to help people who are homeless, Heitkamp prefers to focus on the spiritual nourishment that she sees being shared between those who receive the meals and those who serve them.

In that regard, two moments stand out to her. One reminds her of the humanity that binds all people. The other provided a touch of humility that she has embraced as a way of life.

“There’s one neighbor I’ve gotten to know the most,” Heitkamp says. “Whenever I would tell him that I’m praying for him, he’d say, ‘Please pray for my daughter and her salvation.’ He doesn’t have a home and he’s in great need, but he also knows the importance of salvation.”

She describes the other moment as equally “small yet powerful.”

“It’s just been very busy [at the food trailer],” she says. “The other day, one of our neighbors came to the window, and he could tell I was tired. He told me that what I was doing was good for this life and the next.

“It’s been extremely humbling at times. Our neighbors have shown their faith in a way much greater than mine. Doing this has helped me see so much more of their humanness and their joy.”

‘Serving with love and joy’

The idea for the food trailer was envisioned three years ago when the parish committed to renovating its outdated offices and rectory as part of a capital campaign. For years, the parish had served the homeless by providing food and clothing to whomever knocked on the rectory door. As St. John’s pastor, Father Rick Nagel believed a food trailer would create a more visible, more inviting, more comprehensive way to serve people who are homeless.

“The trailer feels special to our neighbors, and the volunteers do such an amazing job of providing delicious, homemade meals daily as well as serving with love and joy,” Father Nagel says.

“One of our parishioners shared that she loves the Emmaus Trailer as it is very visible and thus allows her to see the faces of our neighbors each day when she comes to Mass. She said, ‘I get to see the face of Jesus in the poor and then receive him in the holy Eucharist, and then go forth to serve him by serving our neighbors.’ ”

The expansive food trailer features a freezer, an oven, sinks, a grill, food warmers, a six-burner stove, a double-door refrigerator and a storage area for socks, towels and toiletries—items that are often requested by the homeless.

The equipment makes it possible to serve three meals a day Monday through Friday, with a lunch on Saturday. Even better, hot meals are provided twice a day on weekdays.

In the morning, a breakfast burrito, a breakfast sandwich or oatmeal is served with a side of fruit, coffee and hot chocolate. The lunch menu features a casserole or soup, a sandwich, fruit, chips and a dessert. Dinner is more basic with a sandwich, chips, fruit and a bottle of water.

“Our neighbors tell us that if we weren’t serving, they wouldn’t be eating,” says Heitkamp, noting that the ministry serves about 275 meals to the homeless daily. “One thing that’s helpful for them is our consistency. And seeing the food trailer shows them our desire and commitment to serving them. It’s been very positive.”

As deluxe as the food trailer is, the volunteers who staff it are even more top-of-the-line, Heitkamp says. Beyond serving the homeless, volunteers make sandwiches and cook casseroles, soups and stews. They also shop for and donate food and personal hygiene items.

“There’s no way this would be possible without the volunteers who give so much time, effort and resources to this,” Heitkamp says. “That’s been humbling, too.”

‘It just feels rewarding to be here’

It’s a late afternoon, and there’s a steady stream of people—young and old, men and women—approaching the window of the food trailer, seeking something to eat.

As one of the volunteers who staff the food trailer, Theresa Zimmerman opens the window, flashes a smile at the next person in line, and then goes about putting together a dinner meal for the person.

As they wait, some of the people in line share their thoughts on the food trailer and the efforts of the parish.

“The food truck is sharp. I like it. I’m glad they’re here,” says one person.

Another man who asks for socks and soap in addition to the meal shares a common thought, “It’s cool. They’re good people.”

And all the people in line thank Zimmerman when she gives them their bag of food and tells each one of them, “Have a blessed day.” They often tell her to do the same.

Her connection with the people in line shows in her pained look when she says, “I feel bad when it’s raining and I don’t have a poncho to give them.”

Moments later, she adds, “98% of the people who come to the window are appreciative, and they tell me how blessed they are. It just feels rewarding to be here.”

That feeling is what her father, Frank Collier, hoped for her when the longtime member of St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg invited his daughter to join him in volunteering at St. John.

“He really enjoyed coming down here,” Zimmerman says. “We did it together until the pandemic, and then he wasn’t able to come. He passed away in January. He was 86. I still feel like I’m doing this with him.”

The bonds that Zimmerman has formed through volunteering at St. John are exactly what Heitkamp and Father Nagel have wanted to create through the parish’s Emmaus Ministry.

“We believe that the poor and homeless need us to physically survive,” Father Nagel says. “Yet, we need them even more to spiritually thrive.”

Heitkamp adds, “This helps us see the humanness in all of us. Whether we’re physically poor or spiritually poor, we’re all poor in some way. We all need to receive the love of Christ and the love of our neighbor.”

(To volunteer or contribute to the Emmaus Ministry at St. John—as a greeter, a shopper, a sandwich maker, a home chef—contact Danielle Heitkamp at danielle.heitkamp@stjohnsindy.org.)

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