Wendy Klesch, Special to The Catholic Virginian

It was the late 1970s when Clara Cherry, housekeeper at the St. Vincent de Paul Parish, Newport News, rectory, heard that knock. She opened the door leading from the kitchen to find a homeless man on the back steps, asking for something to eat. She offered him a meal.

Rose Murphy, Pat Liquori and Karen Simpson are among the volunteers who serve at the Backdoor Ministry on Wednesdays. Murphy, who invited Simpson to volunteer, has been with Backdoor Ministry 20 years. (Photos/Wendy Klesch, The Catholic Virginian)

A few days later, there was another knock. This time, she found a few more people gathered at the back door. When Father John Dorgan, then pastor of the parish, learned of the men and women venturing up the rectory’s steps, he encouraged the parish to take the housekeeper’s simple act of kindness and develop it into a mission, one devoted to serving Newport News’ East End.

Today, the ministry is a community of more than 60 volunteers who, working together, run a kitchen that serves 70 to 140 meals daily, five days a week. Backdoor Ministry also operates a clothing closet, distributes bags of toiletries, provides bus passes and offers assistance to those needing to secure ID cards.

Last month, the volunteers were named 2017 Citizens of the Year by the Daily Press, a Newport News daily newspaper. A plaque noting the honor hangs in the hallway of the building where the ministry began.

“We could not do it without our volunteers,” said Brenda Orie, director of social ministries at St. Vincent de Paul. “You can depend on them without a doubt. If we need something, they bring it in. And they serve with such joy — it makes such a difference to those who are coming in.”

She explained that the ministry’s kitchen has five groups of five to six volunteers each, one group for each weekday.

“Our Monday group has been with us the longest — Hilton Presbyterian. They have been coming for 20 years,” Orie said. Occasionally, other groups — such as volunteers from the Navy or various schools— relieve the regulars.

Windows to the soul

One cold March morning, four friends sat at a table in the former parish rectory, a 100-year-old building with hardwood floors and high ceilings, now used for parish offices and the ministry. They had taken a few minutes to visit over coffee and tea before heading into the kitchen. Rose Murphy, Pat Liquori and Penny Clarke all attend Mass at Langley Chapel, the congregation slated to serve in the kitchen on Wednesdays.

“Actually, I’m Baptist,” said the fourth member, Karen Simpson. She added, “Don’t tell anyone,” as the others laughed with her.

Simpson said she began volunteering when her neighbor, Murphy, who has been serving with the ministry for 20 years, invited her.

“I saw a little notice in the church bulletin,” Murphy said. “And I’ve been volunteering ever since. We all get along really well.”

“It’s like a club,” said Orie. “Once people start volunteering, they get to know one another, and they keep coming back. They are glad to be here, and that feeling really shows.”

She marveled at the group’s dedication. If the ministry began with a door, its people are the windows to its soul. Orie recalled that once during a heavy snowstorm, volunteer Audrey Carr, a woman in her 80s, made her way from Denbigh to be at St. Vincent’s on her day to serve.

“I remember saying, ‘How did you get down here?’” Orie said.

Another volunteer, Kathleen McDonald, recently bought shoes for Frank, a frequent visitor to the ministry. Due to difficulties walking, Frank wears out the toes of his shoes quickly.

“We were looking through the shoes we had, but we couldn’t find any his size. So she went out and bought him a pair, and then bought two more to keep in the office, so we’d have them when he needed them. They’re right over there,” Orie said, gesturing to a shelf where two shoe boxes sat, each carefully labeled, “For Frank.”

Providential timing

As 10 o’clock approached, a few men began to arrive down the sidewalk, bent against a damp, late-winter wind. Although lunch is not served until 11, some arrived early in order to visit the clothing closet, a large, three-sided, open-air outbuilding fronted by a wide counter where volunteers help visitors find what they need.

At the counter, Keith, a regular visitor to the ministry who does home repairs, inspected a pair of heavy-duty work shoes.

“I just finished replacing some rotten floor boards in a house over there,” he said, pointing down the street before turning his attention back to the shoes. “St. Vincent’s has been a huge help to a lot of people here, and Ms. Orie is just a Godsend.”

In the picnic shelter by the kitchen door, a few more had gathered to wait at the wooden tables, while inside, volunteers bustled from counter to counter, helping cook Leroy Bunch and kitchen assistant Samuel Robinson prepare lunch.

Orie explained that besides the teams of kitchen volunteers, others are needed to pick up and deliver food donated by restaurants and grocery stores.

Frank Grimm, a parishioner at St. Kateri Tekakwitha, Yorktown, picks up cases of meat from the Virginia Peninsula Food Bank each week to distribute at Backdoor Ministry. He has been helping with the ministry since the 1980s, when he and his young children began making bologna sandwiches for volunteers to distribute on weekends, when the kitchen was closed. Five years ago, he felt the call to get more involved.

The timing was providential.

“I believe God told me to go and talk to them,” he said.  “I walked into the office and offered to volunteer, and Brenda said, ‘You’re kidding me? You have a pick-up truck? The man who has been making the deliveries for years is leaving today.’”

‘We’re not here to judge’

After retiring from the Army, Eric Reinkober of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, Newport News, was looking for a place to volunteer.

“I happened to be driving around in the area and saw that they were serving meals, so I stopped and knocked on the door and introduced myself to Brenda.” he said. Today, Reinkober picks up food donated to the ministry.

“It’s fascinating to see the way they can take such different foods, all donated from different grocery stores and restaurants, and put them together to make a really great meal,” he said.

Volunteers Jennifer Colon, Kathleen McDonald, Robert Yankoski and William Hrachovina serve a visitor to the clothing distribution center, Monday, March 19.

Orie explained the ministry prides itself on serving a balanced meal each day — a meat dish, a vegetable, potatoes or rice, a tossed salad and dessert. In the winter, visitors are offered coffee and hot chocolate; in the summer, it’s iced tea and fruit drinks.

“Sometimes we get people here who are in hard hats,” she said, “and some might say, ‘What are they doing here? They have a job.’ But you don’t know what expenses people might have, what they might have to do to make ends meet. You can’t judge people and help them at the same time.”

“If they are here, they must be hungry,” Orie said.

“And they get a meal.” Reinkober concurred.

“We aren’t there to judge. We are just there to do what we can to help make these men and women’s lives just a little less difficult,” he said.

“It’s a way for we as Christians to be there for people, even if it’s just to give them a warm coat in the winter or a hot meal. For many, it’s the only hot meal they may have that day, so it’s not an invaluable thing.”

Prayers for a new building

At 11, the back door opened, and volunteers began passing out hot lunches on jade green trays to those waiting on the steps.  One by one, each guest took a tray wafting with steam and headed to a spot at the picnic shelter.

“I have learned a lot about the challenges that face many of the men and women who come to the ministry,” Reinkober said. “They all have different stories. Many are working, many have faced problems with addiction. I’ve seen veterans coming in.”

Orie hopes one day the parish will be able to build an addition so visitors will be able to eat indoors. During driving rain and truly bitter weather, she tries to bring the people into a narrow chapel that runs along the side of the church, even though it’s a tight fit.

The parish has plans to build a hall that could also be used by the ministry, but the estimated cost is $750,000, of which $28,000 has been raised through donations and $54,000 through the Living Our Mission Campaign.

“That is something I pray for,” Orie said. “If we had the addition, we’d have the room to bring everyone in out of the elements,” she said, as she walked over to the shelter to greet a few of the men.

“Hello, Frank,” she called to a man bundled in a black hoodie. “How are your shoes holding up?”

He smiled and turned his shoes face up, showing solid leather across the toes.

“They’re real good,” he said. “And I’ve been doing a lot of walking.”

After a chat about the vagaries of a Tidewater winter, Frank noticed lunches were being served. He rose slowly from the bench and took his leave with a nod.

“God bless you!” he called, as he went to take his place in the line before the open kitchen door.

To volunteer with Backdoor Ministry or to make a donation, please contact Brenda Orie at (757) 380-1574 or brendaorie@verizon.net