sign of the Kingdom

November 28, 2007

Jesus promised, one way or another, to stick around and continue his ministry through his followers for the rest of human history. Did he keep his word?

Philip Hallie, in his book Tales of Good and Evil, Help and Harm, relates the story of Dr. Roger Le Forestier. I would like to repeat it in detail, but the most spectacular chapter of his story – his involvement in the heroism of the village of Chambon in occupied France – is tangential to the part I'm interested in. Le Forestier was arrested for having firearms in his ambulance, of which he had been unaware. His two hitchhikers, maquisards, had hidden them in his vehicle without his knowledge, and as he would not reveal their existence, he faced summary execution. The subject of his work in Chambon came up. As Hallie writes:

Le Forestier summarized his testimony by saying that the people of Le Chambon “resist unjust laws, we hide Jews, we disobey your orders, but we do these things in the name of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Hmm. Jesus is not only a clumsy criminal, leaving his fingerprints all over the scene of the crime, but a vain artist, making sure to sign his name with a flourish.

The case of Jorge Munoz of Woodhaven, New York, is less ostentatious. As presented in Adam Ellick's feature, “The Chicken and Rice Man,” in the City section of Sunday's Times, Mr. Munoz is an unusual individual who does what he does for somewhat inscrutable reasons. While wanting to leave Mr. Munoz a dimension of mystery, I respectfully suggest there is some scrutability here.

Jorge Munoz is a 43-year old school bus driver who lives with his mother and his sister. Back in 1984 his mother had left Columbia to become an illegal immigrant and live-in nanny in Bushwick, Brooklyn. In two years she saved enough to bring her kids to New York City, and since then all three have become US citizens. Three years ago, some fellow Columbian emigres who work in the food industry mentioned to Jorge Munoz the distressing surpluses of food produced, and then thrown out, at their workplaces. Around the same time, he noticed a shifting group of day laborers that would congregate under the el tracks at a particular intersection in Jackson Heights. In Ellick's words:

Stopping to talk, he learned that most of them sleep under the bridge across the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway at 69th Street or in the emergency room of Elmhurst Hospital, where they can stay until they are booted out at 5 a.m. To save money, they skimp on meals, and the little money they pocket is immediately wired to destitute relatives back home.

Munoz started bringing brown-bagged snacks – eight at first – to the corner three nights a week. In a year, he and his mother (retired now due to osteoporosis and arthritis) started making hot meals for 15 men, which he would take to that same corner at 9:30pm every weeknight.

Now they feed several dozen on a single evening.
“Once I started, I can't go back,” he said as he headed off one recent evening. “Those guys are waiting for me. These guys, they got nothing. They live in the street. They have no family. They have no relatives, nothing. They just wait for me. And I say, 'OK, no problem.'”

That's not the full extent of his ministry. He serves breakfast on Saturday mornings for hundreds of workers (spread out over seven locations). Are you starting to feel anxiety for this man? Does he know how you have to take care of yourself if you want to take care of others? No worries. He takes every Sunday off. On that day, he and his moms only make 40 ham and cheese sandwiches.

I urge you to read the whole article, here and free for a few more days, because the details of how Munoz runs his ministry and the costs it entails for him make for fascinating and discomfiting reading. I think the most important things for me to think about is how this guy hasn't seen a movie in two years, and how one-third of his weekly income is devoted to the ministry. That money is needed although a good portion of the food is donated by some of those food-industry connections he has. Who must remain nameless, because of course you can lose your job for doing something as subversive as not throwing food out.

Now, who is this man? What makes him tick? Is he happy? All very interesting questions. Few attempts to answer them in this piece, which is probably a good thing. The few ideas Ellick does offer – that Munoz feeds these men for the meaning and focus it gives to his life, that he finds it gratifying to help others, that his crusade is “quixotic and perhaps obsessive” – would have been better left in the oven a little longer. Naturally, I'm curious about the religious affiliation of Jorge Munoz. There are two pertinent details, inserted so obliquely into the text it makes me chuckle. We hear in passing that the refrigerator in the kitchen “bears 10 images of Christ,” and that Munoz stops every night (for some obscure reason) at the International Ministerial Church of Jesus Christ in Woodside.

That really doesn't tell me much. And that's okay. I don't need to have my curiosity satisfied about the relationship Mr. Munoz is carrying on with his Maker. If those two details were skipped – which they could easily have been, without disrupting the article in any way – I would still rejoice that this man allowed his life to be interrupted and utterly redirected by a refusal to ignore the suffering of his neighbors. But if we want to explore why this man is doing what we are incapable of imagining and unlikely to do, we could do worse than start with the possibility that Jesus is making good on his promises.

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