The Chow Train is a San Antonio-based nonprofit food truck dedicated to the homeless, working poor and the “newly homeless” as the result of natural disasters.
A man in his mid-40s stood in the line tonight at one of the four stops and asked Jimmy and Diane what church was serving the meal.
“No church,” Jimmy said. “It’s The Chow Train.”
He looked confused. “I don’t understand. How can you not be a church?”
We served “Tom” a cup of hot soup and I told him after soup it would be a full restaurant quality meal. Tonight, we got lucky. Someone else did the cooking. A donation from a friend of The Smoke Shack. A full plate of barbeque.
Tom began eating but then he stopped. He walked over to where I was standing and asked if we could talk. “I don’t understand how you are not from a church. Can you explain that?”
“Yes. We are a nonprofit. Just a group of friends who believe that serving a hot meal is the same thing as praying. This is how we pray.”
“We believe that everyone deserves a hot, delicious” and I stopped and smiled when pointing at the plate that had just been served to one of our guests. “Well most of the time a hot, healthy plate of food. That’s it. Its pretty simple.”
He didn’t respond immediately. His shoulders drooped and I could tell his heart was heavy. And then he spoke. Barely above a whisper.
“This is the first time I’ve ever been on the street. I’m in a bad way. I don’t want to be in this situation, but I am.”
I began to tell him that I understood. That I was glad he found The Chow Train and we found him.
But there was an awkward silence. I knew I needed to stop talking. That Tom had something he wanted, he needed, to say.
And then he spoke.
“I have to tell you something. Tonight I was planning on committing suicide. I mean I want to, I really do. But now I’m not so sure. I have two teenagers and an ex-wife and, I’m just in a bad way. I don’t want to be like this but I want to end this pain. It’s too hard…”
And that’s when I just stopped breathing. For a second.
I grabbed Tom by the shoulders and looked straight at him and said: “We deliver more than a hot meal. We give hugs, too. Can I hug you?”
And without waiting for an answer, I reached up and on my tiptoes I gave Tom a hug. A bear hug. I hugged him tightly and a bit longer than I’d usually hug someone I don’t know well. I was buying some time. I was trying to figure out what to say.
Then I found my voice but it and I were shaking. “Please, please don’t do it. Think of your kids and how hard it will be for them. Just take it one day at a time. One hour at a time. Can I give you a great dinner? Can you sit down and have dinner with us?”
And without waiting for an answer, I put my hand on his back and turned him around. I asked him to look up at the moon. It was beautiful. Large and bright. It was a harvest moon. How many of those moons would he miss? And, most importantly, how much would he miss his children? And how would they grow up without him?
I then brought him over to the truck and handed him a plate of food. I moved him towards my friend, Preacher Robert. I asked Robert if he could talk to Tom. And he did and I could tell that Robert was able to bring him comfort.
Before I left, I hugged Tom again and said: “I will see you again. Next week. You will be here. Yes?”
And with tears running down his face, Tom said: “Yeah. I think so.”
I got back into the pickup truck, shaking. “Let’s get to Maverick Park,” I said to my husband. I remained silent. Uncharacteristically silent.
Diane tapped me with her elbow. “Hey, are you okay? What’s going on? Who was that guy you were talking to? I’ve never seen him before. Have you?”
“No. But I really hope I see him next week. He told me he’ll be back. I really hope so.”
In the years that I’ve served on the street, I am always reminded that one never knows what’s going on in another person’s life. Sometimes they are so far down, they can’t see up. And that’s when you’re there to give them a great hot meal. Comfort food. A hug.
That night was the first night I really understood that we serve more than a plate of food.
It’s a plate of love.
Maybe it won’t make a difference but I’m hoping that it will. I’m praying hard that it will.
We have a variety of guests at The Chow Train. Some are homeless—chronically or like “Tom” temporarily. But they are in despair. Many more are working poor. There are those who suffer from mental illness or another physical disability.
We ask two questions: “How are you doing this evening?” And, “Are you hungry?”
We listen and we serve. Our prayer is the hot plate of food we serve. We let our guests know of services that are available only when they ask.
Our mission is to treat everyone we meet with the dignity they deserve.
To provide a hot, healthy and restaurant quality meal to those in need. To those who are chronically homeless or situationally homeless because of the loss of a job, illness, unexpected and/or mounting medical bills, addiction issues and those who are “newly homeless” because of tornadoes, hurricanes, fires or floods. To those who are members of the working poor community – those men, women and children in our city who do not have enough food to feed their families or themselves. The food insecure.
They are all hungry.
Consider these facts:
- More than 260,000 people in Bexar County struggle to get adequate nutrition, according to a 2011 study.
- One in six Bexar County residents struggle to afford food.
- One out of four children in Bexar County are food insecure – most probably those children go to bed hungry.
- Texas is the second most food insecure state in the nation.
Our motto at The Chow Train is: “Fighting Hunger. One Plate At A Time.”
A Plate of Love.