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Loaves and Fishes, a labor of love

For liturgical churches who use a prescribed lectionary, or bible readings, last Sunday’s gospel reading was about the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 with 12 loaves and fishes.

Jesus had just heard that John the Baptist had been executed and needed to take some time to get away from the crowds. But the huge crowds followed him, seeking healing and words of wisdom and encouragement. Jesus took compassion on them, healing their sick. The disciples recognized that Jesus was tired and suggested that he send them away as dusk was approaching, so that these people could go home and get food. But Jesus told them to share what they had, twelve baskets of bread and fish. The disciples argued that there was not nearly enough food to go around, but Jesus insisted. Miraculously, everyone was fed.

In 2004, five visionary Pagosa women — Muriel Cronkhite, Jane Lomasney, Gloria Haynes, Joanne Irons and Cynthia Sharp — recognized a need in our community that was not being met and organized a weekly free lunch program to serve hot meals to anyone who came to be fed. This program, called “Loaves and Fishes,” has grown and developed over the years, receiving non-profit status, and is run by a local board of directors. The meals are cooked and served by volunteers representing local service organizations each Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Parish Hall of The Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church on Lewis Street . Loaves and Fishes relies completely on grants, donations, volunteer service, along with help from the Colorado Work Force, to provide these meals.

The number of people requesting these meals has grown during this time of financial downturn in our community. Sometimes Loaves and Fishes serves a hot lunch to as many as 300 people, including to-go boxes for Meals on Wheels, the Women’s Shelter and individuals requesting them. This includes meat, vegetable, bread, desert and drink.

“It really is a miracle that for the past seven years, Loaves and Fishes has continued to feed all who come,” says Fr. Doug Neel, who along with Pastor Don Ford, serves as a clergy adviser to the board. “We don’t always have what we need,” he said. When the town was reduced to only one supermarket, the availability of donated food was also reduced. “But we do what we have to do to make it work,” he said. “Last week we had no donated bread for our Sloppy Joes, and we had no desert. So we went out and bought hamburger buns, cookies, and ice cream. All were fed, with some left over.

“The best part of the program is the people,“ says Fr. Neel. “I have seen people come in who initially seem to be uncomfortable about receiving a free meal. But they soon discover that Loaves and Fishes does not differentiate between the poor and those who simply come to enjoy good food and fellowship. The volunteers serve everyone who comes to be fed, offering an attitude of joy and hospitality. It can be life-changing,” he said.

Jesus did not send anyone away. He did not ask his disciples to check to first determine who was worthy of his abundant love. He simply gave generously of his love and compassion to all who came. There are many in our community who follow this example, striving to live up to the name “Loaves and Fishes.” They give generously of their time, their talent, and their resources. They give from the heart ... and all are fed.

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