A small band of friars and nuns from Brazil is finding more than one way to feed the homeless of Los Angeles
Friar Benjamin of the Most Holy Trinity walked down Towne Avenue in Skid Row, one hand wheeling an ice chest filled with oranges and bottled water, the other clutching plastic bags of peanut butter and ham and cheese sandwiches, chips and fruit snacks.
Dressed in a full habit, a straw hat and brown flip-flops, Friar Benjamin, 42, along with a group of three other friars, one nun and three volunteers, shouted, “Cold water! Free food!” as they made their way along the tent-lined streets in the 90-degree summer heat.
They moved slowly, taking time to talk to people about their lives and to ask if they need a prayer. Tyrone Tankins, who has lived on Skid Row for the past eight months, asked them to pray for his grandmother, who is sick. Even though he survived cancer and a gunshot wound, he said, it’s his grandmother who needs help.
“I’m worried about her,” he said. The group gathered in a circle, joined hands with Tankins, and prayed with him.
A woman requested a prayer for her car to be fixed. A man asked to sing for them.
By the time they finished circling the block— which took more than an hour — they had given away all their food and water, even the ice from the cooler. Together with another team of friars, nuns and volunteers, which walked a different block, they distributed 400 sandwiches to 200 homeless people on Skid Row in a single Saturday afternoon.
“It takes tenacity and compassion to do this,” said Jedobby Joriday, who lives on Skid Row and received food from the friars and sisters in August. “It’s not the grandeur of the things that you do, it’s the minute things, like if you answer a call for help.”
Friar Benjamin is a member of the Friars and Sisters of the Poor Jesus, a religious order founded in Brazil whose mission is to minister to the neediest and most marginalized members of society.
After Archbishop José H. Gomez invited the order to Los Angeles earlier this year, a band of four friars and four sisters have set out for Skid Row every weekend, in hopes that free sandwiches and bottled water will be the first step in lifting the city’s growing homeless population out of poverty and despair.
“We’re trying to address not only the homeless situation, but also the problems we have as a society when we neglect the spiritual side,” said Friar Benjamin, who is from the southern state of Santa Catarina in Brazil. “We have no illusions that we’re going to solve it completely, but this is what we need to rediscover, if you will, Jesus’ message.”
The religious order was founded in 2001 by a Brazilian priest named Father Gilson Sobreiro. Troubled by the violence, gang activity, addiction and poverty that he saw around him in the city of Sao Paulo, Father Sobreiro rented a house where drug addicted youths could live and recover.
From this, the religious order spread to 12 countries, including Paraguay, Argentina, Nicaragua, El Salvador, France and Canada. In 2012, they expanded to Kansas City, its first ministry in the United States.
“We live for the poor,” said Friar Benjamin. “We always go to the worst areas of the cities, places where you find more violence, drugs, gangs, prostitution, you name it.”
In Los Angeles, this means Skid Row, where more than 4,000 of the county’s nearly 53,000 homeless people live, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. Father Brian Nunes, Archbishop Gomez’s priest secretary, said the decision to call on the religious order was a direct response to the city’s growing homelessness crisis.
“So many people are working on the issue of homelessness, but Archbishop Gomez wanted to make sure they’re cared for in a spiritual way,” he said.
Friar Benjamin agreed that spirituality is at the core of their mission. “We give out simple food, but we develop friendships,” he said. “Once they realize that you care about them, and that what we do goes beyond food, then they understand, and something internal happens, and it’s like a strength comes and they start fighting for their lives again.”
While the religious order is not the only one ministering to the homeless in Los Angeles, it is perhaps the most visible.
Sister Maria Carlos-Valdez, vicar for women religious for the archdiocese, said that groups such as Lovers of the Holy Cross, Mary Queen of Heaven Missionaries, the Religious Sisters of Charity and the sisters at the Good Shepherd Shelter also minister to the city’s homeless, but often do so in lay clothing, so they aren’t always recognized as religious.
“We now have a community in habits and we can see them working with the homeless, but that doesn’t mean that other communities have not done the same work,” she said.
In order to better serve the poor, the friars and sisters also strive to live in poverty themselves. This means having minimal personal possessions — a few changes of clothes and no cell phones — sleeping on the floor, and eating only what has been donated to them. To make money, they make rosaries and other crafts that they sell in local parishes.
“Especially now, in our world, people think that to be happy you have to have and have and have,” said Sister Maria Goretti of the Spiritual Infancy.
“When people look at us, they’re reminded that we’re not made for this earth. People think, ‘Oh, you don’t have cell phones, Facebook, social media.’ But it’s also beautiful because we’re a sign for people who can’t live without the internet. We see society and how you can’t leave your phone. Our poverty can assure people that you can live without so many things.”
This life of simplicity and poverty is what initially drew Sister Maria to the order.
She first encountered the religious order during a retreat when she was a teenager living in Brazil. She was first struck by how young they were — she had never seen sisters in their 20s and 30s wearing habits before, she said — but it was the joy they radiated that made her want to learn more. They didn’t have any of the material possessions she had considered the key to happiness, yet somehow they were joyful.
“It was very powerful,” she said. “For me, what was happiness — they didn’t have any of it. But they were happier than I was with the things I had.”
So at age 15, Sister Maria, who is now 25, joined the order, and then worked in Brazil, Paraguay and Kansas City before coming to Los Angeles this year.
What she saw here came as a surprise, she said. Before moving to Los Angeles, her only knowledge of it came from Hollywood, she said, so she expected a city full of celebrities and glamor. She didn’t expect to be reminded of the poverty she saw back home.
“I never imagined that Skid Row would be reality,” she said.
But after starting her work, she realized that Skid Row — not Hollywood — is the most important part of the city, “because it’s where we have human beings who have been forgotten by society,” she said. “Nobody talks about the people living there.”
Now, Sister Maria and the three other sisters and three friars who are stationed in Los Angeles spend their weekdays attending school to learn English and their Saturdays at St. Teresa of Avila in Silver Lake preparing sandwiches, assembling the bagged lunches and walking the streets of Skid Row, about four miles away, to distribute them.
Claudia Pina, a volunteer from La Habra, has been making and handing out sandwiches with the order since February. One Saturday in August she brought her 8-year-old son, who not only put together bags of food, but also wheeled them on a dolly around Skid Row. The experience, she said, has been important to his faith formation.
“It allows him to see what’s taught in the Bible firsthand and to live it,” she said.
While food distribution has been the centerpiece of the order’s work this year, it is also hoping to do more. Eventually, said Friar Benjamin, they would like to open a house so that the homeless they minister to can live with them, the same way their founder, Father Gilson Sobreiro, did in Brazil.
The house, Friar Benjamin said, will be a way for people to escape Skid Row, recover from addiction and experience another way of life.
Opening a house would allow the religious order to reach even more people than they do now, but Sister Maria said that numbers aren’t their focus.
“I always remember that the gospel is not like everyone else, who say, ‘We want numbers, we want results,’ ” said Sister Maria. “The gospel of the Lord says that when one person converts, the heavens rejoice. If one person there can change, or if we can help one of them, or later, after going there many, many times, if one of them says, ‘Oh, maybe I have a way to change,’ and it’s only one — then it’s worth it to be there.”