Good works by 5 men feed Miami's hungry, and their own soul
Amid the scores of organizations feeding the hungry in urban Miami, one of the most popular isn't really an organization at all.
The pickup truck pulled onto a sidewalk under downtown Miami's web of highways. It was 7 p.m., and already the jolt of the workday had flat-lined into a desolate world of silence and silhouettes.
Then, a voice whistled. Within seconds, 18 homeless men and two women were at the back of the truck, forming a single-file line, their hands outstretched. The four men riding in the back handed each two sandwiches and a soda.
They performed their act of charity without the support of any formal organization. The five -- including driver Orlando Mendez -- pay for the food out of their own pockets, about $200 a week.
Sometimes, Mendez will ask the homeless to pray with him before they eat:
``Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.''Three years ago, Mendez heard a speech by Bono describing how God's presence can be found in pockets of poverty. It followed a moving sermon by his church's youth pastor, who urged the congregation to go out and do good.
So he packed a duffel bag with bacon double-cheeseburgers and told his wife he was going to start heading to Overtown once a week to befriend the afflicted. Soon, he was joined by four friends.
Their food came from Wendy's. Their street name came from elsewhere. ``There goes the Whopper Men!'' came the yell from a group sitting in folding chairs on a lot at Northwest First Avenue and 15th Street.
Times being what they are, there aren't any Whoppers right now. Only recession sandwiches.
Mendez makes his living renting out construction equipment -- not the best business when little is getting built. Manny Diaz, 42, installs car sound systems -- not a boom business in the age of the iPod. Tomás Chadwick, 39, got laid off at Bear Stearns. Javier Castellon, 44, works in real estate. Billy Hernandez, 51, does window tinting.
They meet around 4 p.m. Tuesday afternoon at Mendez's sprawling home in West Miami-Dade. On his dining and end tables, they set out slices of oat and white Winn-Dixie bread. Then, a glob of mayo, some bologna and ham, and a swirl of mustard on each. This is what they can afford.
They wouldn't want to consider what would happen if they ever stopped altogether. Not for the people they serve -- and not for themselves.
``Sometimes, I think we get more out of it than they do,'' said Chadwick, who runs a company that operates airports in Latin America. He buys the sodas the group distributes.
They've learned the most appreciated item is Pepsi. Least? Apples. They tried them once, and it was the only time they came back home with food left.
``I guess the homeless don't always have the best teeth, so no one would take them,'' Chadwick said.
Each block has a different mood. Even corners on the same block are different.
The first stop, as always, was a group of 10 at an empty lot behind the Adrienne Arsht Center.
A whistle went out, and a line formed. A man named Micky Barnes approached Castellon, dug into his pocket and pulled out a small orange Bible, its edges dark around the book of Psalms.
``I've been reading the Bible you gave me,'' Barnes said. ``I don't wanna sound cliché, but I've had five job interviews this week. Stuff is starting to happen for me.''
At Northwest 15th Street and Third Avenue, a woman named Bobbie Jean proudly reported she had stayed out of mischief for another week. As she talked to them, a mother and child pull up in a green sedan.
``Can my son have a sandwich?'' she asked. They got one and drove away.
The Whopper Men moved onto a corner underneath an Overtown overpass, where the only brightness comes from crack users lighting their pipes. There were 15 of them here, hunched on a curb, many of them shaking.
The Whopper Men jumped out. They said the Lord's Prayer, but only half of this group joined them. One woman muttered that she didn't want bologna.
Here, at Northwest 14th Avenue and Second Court, was the coldest reception The Whopper Men got all night. Mendez walked a few steps away; his eyes began to glisten.
``This is the place I started,'' he said.
He wonders whether an ephemeral moment once a week can make any sort of lasting change.
``Sometimes, people will say to me, `I listened to your advice last week and called my family -- and at the end of the month, I'm moving back home,' '' Mendez assured himself. ``There are people who get out of here. Will they be back? I don't know. But there are people who get out of here.''
One subtle sign they're making a difference: The people at this corner no longer try to sell the Whopper Men drugs.
And when the truck went out before Thanksgiving, a homeless man gave Mendez a token of appreciation: a bag full of fruit.
The sandwiches were running low. The van snaked into Bicentennial Park, where two separate homeless colonies subsist under a big sky with a bayfront view.
Castellon began to pray with a group of men, their foreheads touching. A woman approached Mendez. Holding the two bologna sandwiches in her hand, she told him how she'd love to be a waitress in South Beach.
``But look at me!'' Edith Bowen told them. ``I'm 52 years old; no one's going to hire me.''
``You're very personable,'' Mendez said. ``I'm sure a place would hire you in a minute. Do you have any family you can call? Maybe they'll help you out. You'll be surprised.''
``Maybe you're right,'' Bowen replied. ``All I need is a little help. . . . Just come check up on me, OK? Make sure I'm still here.''
Mendez smiled: ``We'll be back Tuesday.''
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