My friends are part of the Las Vegas Catholic Worker community, although neither of them identify as Catholic. I think it’s unusual to be a non-Catholic Catholic Worker, but I can’t say I’ve surveyed any other Catholic Workers about their beliefs or religious affiliations.
One of the Catholic Worker activities my friends participate in is serving food to hungry people. (My friends also do peace work focused on the elimination of nuclear weapons development, production, and testing. In addition, they also cook and serve with Food Not Bombs once or twice a month.)
When I mention I’m heading to Las Vegas to visit friends, the person I’m speaking with tends to get a knowing look, all wink wink nudge nudge. People say things to me like Have fun! or Be careful. Although I do have fun with my friends, I try to explain to people that my trips to Vegas are not what they’re thinking. My first visits to Vegas, the three nights I spent there with Sweet L and Mr. Carolina, eating and drinking out of trash can and wondering at the sights of the Strip, those night were maybe a little closer to what people think Las Vegas is about. (Read about those nights in the first part of this post: http://www.rubbertrampartist.com/2015/11/20/the-other-las-vegas/.) But since I’ve been visiting The Poet and The Activist, my visits to Las Vegas have not involved one foot touching the Strip or casino property.
The Activist participates in the Catholic Worker food service several times a week. The Poet serves food and helps with washing dishes once a week. Whenever I’m visiting, I volunteer with one or both of them.
The serving of food starts at 6:30 in the morning. I’m not usually out and about so early, but other people are accustomed to it. When we arrive at the Catholic Worker House to meet up with the other volunteers, the food is cooked and people are bustling around, loading everything on the trailer to transport it to the empty lot where the food is served. People have been in the kitchen since 4am, preparing the meal.
The kitchen is warm when we walk in, always a contrast with coolness of the desert morning,but especially pronounced in early December. The people inside are warm too, although they must be wondering who I am and if I’ll be back. I’m sure they see many volunteers who help once to fulfill some sort of obligation and never return. In any case, people say hello to me, tell me their names, shake my hand. If The Poet or The Activist is standing next to me, I’m introduced as a friend.
When we arrive, people are typically sitting around a table in the next room, finishing their prayer meeting. I usually hear some portion of the Lord’s Prayer drift from the room. While the prayer meeting is wrapping up, other people are carrying industrial-size metal pots outside to load them on the trailer which an SUV will pull to the site of the serving.
After all the food and tea and paper bowls and plastic utensils and folding tables and condiments and cups are loaded and the prayer group has dispersed, all the volunteers circle around the wooden counter in the middle of the kitchen to join hands and pray together. I hold the hands of the people on either side of me and bow my head respectfully, but I don’t pray. Other folks recite aloud a prayer, often the following one by Samuel F. Pugh:
O God, when I have food,
help me to remember the hungry;
When I have work,
help me to remember the jobless;
When I have a home,
help me to remember those who have no home at all;
When I am without pain,
help me to remember those who suffer,
help me to destroy my complacency;
bestir my compassion,
and be concerned enough to help;
By word and deed,
those who cry out for what we take for granted.
The food is served in a vacant lot at G & McWilliams Streets , far enough away from the Catholic Worker house so it makes sense to go in a car. I ride with The Activist (and The Poet too, if it’s Saturday). We always arrive a few minutes before the SUV and trailer.
When we arrive, the hungry people are lined up and waiting. Most people would probably say those people standing in line are homeless. I’m sure some of them are homeless. Maybe even a majority of them live on the streets, but I’m not willing to lump the whole bunch into one category. I know every single one of those people has a unique life, an individual story that’s brought each of them to a vacant lot in Las Vegas, NV on any particular morning.
The vast majority waiting to eat are men. Out of a couple hundred people there to eat, I’d be surprised to see more than five women. Where are all the poor, hungry, and/or homeless women? I feel confident they are somewhere in Las Vegas. I hope they are getting their needs met by some other organization(s).
When the trailer arrives, volunteers scurry to set up. Two tables are unfolded, condiments and utensils set out on them. Plastic milk crates are placed at the head of each line, and giant pots of steaming food are set on top of them. Another table is set up with the day’s side dish and is staffed by two volunteers. Someone else prepares to distribute jalapeño peppers from a large plastic tub to folks who want to spice up their food.
The Catholic Worker group also provides warm, damp towels to the folks they serve. I’ve never seen another group provide this service. I think it’s a great idea. A volunteer distributes the warm towels from a 5-gallon bucket. Folks use the towels to wash their face and/or hands, then deposit the used ones in a second bucket. The dirty towels are taken back tot he Catholic Worker house where they are laundered for reuse.
When I volunteer, I usually help hand out bread. (One time I helped hand out the hot main dish.) After putting on gloves, The Activist or The Poet and I take bread out of a 5-gallon bucket and set a variety of choices on the inside of one of the lids, which we use as a tray. The available bread can vary, but I’ve seen it include bagels, sliced wheat bread, hamburger buns, raisin bread, and chunks of baguettes.
I try to be really friendly to people who come up for bread. Good morning! I’ll say with a big smile. Can I get you some bread?
Some people know exactly what they want and how many slices. Others seem confused by the choices. Some seem grateful for whatever they’re handed. I do my best to give folks the kind of bread they want, then sincerely say, Have a nice day! before they leave. I like to think a friendly face and voice and word are as important as the food, but maybe I’m just trying to make myself feel good.
I wonder what the other people in that vacant lot see when they look at me. Do they assume I have a house to return to? Do they think I’m financially secure? Do I seem comfortable and complacent? Do they realize I’m closer economically to the the people there to eat than to the other people serving? Does anyone look at me and imagine I once lived on the streets, that I’m only one step out of my van away from homeless again? But for the grace of the Universe (or God or the Higher Power or Goddess or whatever one chooses to call it), I’d be lined up to receive food instead of serving it.
“Most people would probably say those people standing in line are homeless.”
There are a lot of homeless there; many of them live in the brush of vacant lots, some live in vacant homes, some live outside. There have been a few who dig a hole, burrow through the caliche layer (the solid lime layer under the sand surface). Except for their entrance, they leave the caliche layer intact (I’ve seen it about 8″ thick), leave it for the roof, and burrow under it to form a shelter.
Among the reasons for being homeless is the gambling, of course. I worked there for five years. There were people who appeared to be homeless drifting through the sports bars after ‘events’, draining the drinks glasses left behind. I’ve seen them in the casinos, gambling. I’ve seen them begging for food outside a casino, someone gives them a bill and says, ‘Get yourself a decent meal’. I followed one and he nearly RAN to the craps table.
Driving limo, I’ve had visitors tell me that they were in town for 3 or 4 days, but went through their money in the first four hours, and were glad that their hotel and return flight were already paid. Others said they had lost so much money that when they got to their home airport, they would have to call a friend or relative to bring some cash to the airport so they could get their car out of the parking lot. Others have done that, and learned to leave some cash in the glove box so they CAN get out.
Just like many obsessions, when the gambling bug bites, it can be really hard to shake the disease. And once you’re down and out, how do you leave a place that is a virtual island surrounded by 200 miles of sand in every direction?
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