There are many different ways to feed a person — physically, emotionally, socially, spiritually.
In December 2018, a local deacon and several volunteers from Our Lady of Belen Catholic Church began a venture they hoped would feed individuals and their community in all those ways, and maybe more.
The St. Teresa of Calcutta Soup and Blessing Kitchen opened its doors nearly two years ago, and with the exception of a few weeks it closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, has been going strong ever since.
The soup kitchen was the idea of Jerry Baca, a deacon at Our Lady of Belen Catholic Church; and Mario Baldonado, an OLB parishioner. After hearing Baca deliver a homily one day, Baldonado went to him with the desire to help the community — to do something that would make an impact and that would feed people and souls.
Working off the sentiment of Saint Teresa of Calcutta, a Roman Catholic nun and missionary who was canonized by the Catholic Church in 2016, that you just need to feed one person, the two decided a soup kitchen was needed in Valencia County.
“In looking at our community, just driving up and down Main Street, we didn’t have something like this,” said Baca. “We wanted to feed people who are homeless, who are having a hard time making ends meet, and maybe people who weren’t just hungry for food. Maybe some of them were just lonely, hungry for company. Wanting to visit with someone, have a cup of coffee or a meal with someone.”
The project received the blessing of Fr. Clement Niggel, the pastor for Our Lady of Belen, and they were off and running. A group of volunteers quickly formed and the cooking commenced.
Baca said the community has been an integral part of keeping the kitchen going, donating time and food, as well as funds to buy ingredients and utensils.
When the pandemic hit in March, the soup kitchen, like many other service organizations, struggled to find a way to keep helping. Baca said the cost of to-go containers was prohibitive, so they weren’t able to serve meals for nearly two months at the beginning of the public health crisis.
But then in May, the United Way of Central New Mexico stepped in and awarded the kitchen $1,000 a week to feed Valencia County families. The soup kitchen used the money to bulk purchase ready-to-eat meals from various local restaurants every week and volunteers distributed them to those in need.
Karen Siegman and Mike McNeil, co-owners of the Better Ate Than Never food truck, volunteered to park their truck at various locations to distribute meals as well. Since the cooking crew is limited in size due to COVID-19 restrictions, Siegman and McNeil are the clean-up specialists for the charity.
Facebook also provided funding for the meals after the initial 10 weeks of United Way funding, and the local branch of the State Employees Credit Union donated money as well.
Facebook has also reached out to Baca and the soup kitchen, he said, and has committed to the same level of funding for the group for 10 to 15 weeks after United Way funding is done. The company has also donated $800 to the kitchen for pots and pans and utensils when it’s back up and serving.
Every Friday the group prepares enough food for about 100 meals.
“When we open our doors, it doesn’t matter if there’s only one person or dozens of people – they will get a meal,” Baca said.
The St. Teresa Calcutta Soup and Blessing Kitchen is held from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Friday at the old parish hall at Our Lady of Belen Catholic Church, 101-A N. 10th St., Belen. Currently, due to COVID-19 restrictions, all meals are served to go.
Baca said the soup kitchen is a great benefit for the city of Belen and the entire county.
“Everybody who serves here comes with a humble, open heart, no matter what,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to sit down and break bread, which we can’t do now, but will be able to again once we can have social gatherings.
“A hot meal means so much to people. We had one gentleman come in and he said it was the first hot meal he’d had in two weeks.”
Hopefully, the service will grow and Baca hopes to add more elements to it someday — a place for people to take a shower, wash a load of laundry, a respite.
The idea of making a home-cooked meal for 100 every week might be intimidating or eventually become a chore. Baca says that isn’t the case at all.
“It’s the humbleness of it when we come here. (The volunteers) are doing a service for the community,” he said. “I look forward to it every week. It’s community love. We all come here humbly, those who come to eat and us serving them.”
Volunteer and lifelong OLB parishioner Jackie Aragon said she always wants to be of service to people in need.
“When I heard about this, I volunteered and have been a part of it since day one,” Aragon said. “When you see people come in and see how glad they are for a warm meal, it’s so wonderful. Saint Teresa said feed one person at a time. If we can help that one person, it makes me so happy. It comes down to serving that one person.”
The fellowship of cooking and serving the community together is what keeps Baldonado coming back every week, he said.
“We see a lot of the same people, we have our regulars,” he said. “But during COVID, we’ve had more new people. A lot of people have been laid off, and more retired people, too.”
As the smell of corned beef, green chile stew and Spanish rice permeate the old parish hall, a woman and her two children come in for meals. When asked why they came for a meal, she initially declines to say, but then comes back.
“I can’t leave without saying why. I’m a single mom and I get some assistance for food, but it just doesn’t go as far as you hope,” she said. “Now with COVID, they are home all day and well, we all get kind of sick of my cooking.”
She laughs and continues.
“This is such a blessing, such a wonderful thing to have in our community.”
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.