On Dec. 19, Archbishop José Gomez joined Adopt-A-Family volunteers as they made house calls to some of the poorest neighborhoods in Los Angeles, stopping by apartments on Skid Row to deliver Christmas gifts, groceries and clothing to families in need.
The archbishop drove with a group of volunteers to their first stop, an old building of tiny living spaces in a crime-ridden area. The woman who answered the door said that the father had to work that day and the children were in day care.
The Adopt-A-Family volunteers promised to return later in the week, because they always give the gifts in person.
“Part of the joy for both sides is getting to meet the families and getting to know them a little,” said the program’s founder, Msgr. Terrance Fleming, executive director of the archdiocesan Mission Office.
Archbishop Gomez also strongly believes in meeting one-on-one with those in need — something Pope Francis terms the “culture of encounter,” which teaches the meaning of service and imitates Christ’s example, Archbishop Gomez said, adding that our society is losing that connection because of busy schedules, technology and fear of violence.
Adopt-A-Family takes special care to get to know the families in order to better meet their needs. Starting in August, volunteers visit each family to learn about their struggles, hobbies and Christmas wish list.
Most families request the bare necessities for Christmas, such as a mattress for their child, cleaning products and underwear.
The project started with 10 families and has grown over the last 25 years to serve 503 families with 2,000 children. The program gives each family a two-week supply of groceries, along with household goods and Christmas gifts of toys, clothing and school supplies for the children.
The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels runs the program to serve families who are outside of the help of government services or other charitable programs.
After a short drive, Archbishop Gomez stopped at another apartment. A single mother and her three kids were at home and excited to receive their presents.
Martha Matias, 9, received the bike she wanted for Christmas. She told The Tidings that she hoped her younger brother would get the Legos he wanted. Archbishop Gomez then handed her brother a wrapped gift: a box of Legos.
Archbishop Gomez said the Church calls everyone to bridge the gap between the rich and poor because “we are all children of God.”
He added, “It is true what Jesus said, we are always going to have the poor, but he also told us that we have to help the poor. And help them to be in a better situation.”
The Year of Mercy also brings greater significance to our service to the poor, Archbishop Gomez said. “The Year of Mercy makes us reflect on the beauty and the joy of what we do every day: welcoming people, talking to people, serving people.”
He added that Catholics are called to do more than just pray “in church all day long — it’s praying and serving one another.”
Sisters Diana, Leticia and Silvia Serrano were at the cathedral at 6 a.m. on Dec. 19 to help with last-minute preparations for the day of gift deliveries. They have been volunteers of the program for nine years.
Working with the low-income families has been an eye-opening experience, they said. During the in-person interviews with the families, the sisters have learned about the struggles the families go through to support their children with jobs that barely pay the rent.
Many families are hesitant at first to participate in the program because they are undocumented, Leticia said. “So we just let them know that we are from the Cathedral of Our Lady and when they feel comfortable, they will participate.”
Leticia noted that despite having full-time jobs, she and her sisters enjoy conducting the interviews, which begin at 5:30 p.m. and usually last until 8 p.m. each Tuesday and Thursday beginning in August.
“We look forward to coming,” she said. “Sometimes we get off work and we’re tired, but we don’t care. We want to come. We enjoy coming and interviewing the families.”
Silvia said she loves to see the kids’ delight over the gifts every Christmas.
“The kids get so excited,” she said. “They even come out to our car to help take the gifts.”
And the parents appreciate the support.
“They give us hugs and some of them are in tears,” she said.
The day of gift distributions began with a brief prayer service and an award ceremony that honored program founder Msgr. Fleming and other founding volunteers.
Archbishop Gomez reminded the volunteers that Pope Francis wants this to be a Year of Mercy. He referenced the new movie “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” and said, “I think this year, Mercy Awakens.”