Sunrise Community Church continues homeless outreach through Thanksgiving meal
Jane Angelo woke up Thursday morning and felt a tinge of despair.
She lives alone out of her car, a decision she chose but one with reminders of solitude on days like Thanksgiving and during times like the coronavirus pandemic.
A regular visitor to the Sunrise Community Church on Menchaca Road in South Austin, Angelo knew this year’s Thanksgiving meal offered by the church for people experiencing homelessness would be different.
But Angelo, 56, still showed up hours beforehand, sitting in her car during the early morning before joining the end of a lengthy line ahead of the meal’s 11 a.m. start time.
The line stretched across the front of the church and down Menchaca, with duct tape and yellow spray paint marking six feet of space between people, while masks were mandated and given to anyone who didn’t have one.
It was when Angelo joined the line that she crossed paths again with a good friend, 74-year-old Frank Montefusco. The hadn’t seen each other in a while after initially meeting two years ago at Sunrise, which operates a fully-integrated homeless day resource center during weekdays.
By 11:30 a.m. Thursday, the two friends were bantering back and forth in Sunrise’s parking lot while eating a spread of turkey, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, stuffing, fruit pies and more off a folding table Angelo had retrieved from her car.
While she and Montefusco appreciated the warm holiday meal, it was the context of its company and community that made it so special.
“Living in this community in the middle of a pandemic is kind of scary, especially at an older age,” Angelo said. “In this community, to know that you had somewhere to go today, was really important to me.”
Serving the homeless community
Mark Hilbelink, the lead pastor at Sunrise, began Thursday’s meal with a prayer.
A bullhorn was needed to project his voice loud enough so everyone in line could hear.
After a reminder of the daily services, like hot showers, and weekly services like food stamps, offered by Sunrise to Austin’s homeless community, Hilbelink blessed the meal.
“Lord, we are frustrated that so many of our friends need to be out in the street, but we thank you for the community that they build there, the community that we’re able to have together,” Hilbelink said. “Bless this food, help us have a good time here today.”
That final line resonated with Angelo and Montefusco.
A jovial atmosphere surrounded their meal, as the pair greeted and waved goodbye to friends from Austin’s homeless community who arrived and departed. Some of these were familiar faces to Angelo, who was homeless with her then-22-year-old daughter in Austin a few years ago before the pair left for Louisiana, only for Angelo to later return alone.
Others were more noticeable to Montefusco, a former architect and construction engineer from New York who has been homeless in Austin for almost six years. This was his sixth Thanksgiving at Sunrise, and he said aside from the meal being moved outside due to the pandemic, nothing about it has changed.
“This man didn’t close down,” Montefusco said, referring to Hilbelink. “He opened his arms. He said, ’Come, I’ll take care of you.’ And he’s done that all the time.”
Montefusco, who helps out at Sunrise during Sunday church services, said Sunrise still being open each weekday to care for the homeless, at a time when food pantries and libraries have had restrictive access, is significant.
Maintaining a sense of community among Austin’s homeless population is another benefit of Sunrise’s commitment, Angelo said. She acknowledges the sacrifices made by everyone, from Hilbelink to the volunteers who helped Sunrise stage Thursday’s meal, and the role they played in making it a reality.
“There are a few places doing it (a Thanksgiving meal for the homeless). I’m not saying nobody else is doing it, but again he (Mark) does this every day,” Angelo said. “This for me is just another way to get the community together. He’s taking away from his own time, all of them are. I just think the fact he’s been able to pull this off is amazing.”
Choosing to volunteer
Of the 55 volunteers who helped Sunrise feed people between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Thursday, Nick Russo was likely one of the newest to Austin. Most of the 29-year-old’s family is based in Long Island and he didn’t feel safe traveling back home to New York as COVID-19 cases surge nationwide.
He had previously volunteered at food pantries in Boston, and after relocating to Austin in September for work, he wanted to find a way to get to know the community while also giving back to it. A quick Google search led him to Sunrise, where he spent the morning helping set up tables for food outside and placing six-foot markings to space out the line, and then early afternoon organizing the flow of parking lot traffic.
“I think it hits home — the humanity, there’s a real community here,” Russo said. “When you see a city get rapidly gentrified, this is one of the bastions of what Austin was and is still, but less of.”
Inside the A-frame building of the church is where food was prepared Thursday.
Meat was stripped from turkeys, cans of Dr Pepper were pulled from 12-packs and a constant flow of volunteers and Sunrise staff members passed through the door to make sure things went smoothly.
Sarah Combs, the volunteer coordinator at Sunrise, said about 60% of the people who volunteered to help Thursday were brand new to her.
This influx in volunteer efforts comes as Combs said more people are newly homeless, and therefore likely to take advantage of Sunrise’s services.
Care and comfort
After holding steady for the first 90 minutes of the meal, the line finally dwindled down as 1 p.m. approached, with leftovers set to be stored in one of the church’s commercial refrigerators to feed people in the coming days.
The sense of comfort Sunrise provides to Austin’s homeless community means the food will go quickly, too.
Seeing an old friend in line on a holiday was a reminder to both Montefusco and Angelo of the power of community, something altered for so many people during the pandemic.
That intrinsic, human quality doesn’t change for someone because of their economic or housing status, Angelo said, and the chance to enjoy a meal with a friend goes a long way in filling that void this Thanksgiving.
““How can we beat this?” Montefusco asked, gesturing around. “We’re eating on a beautiful table. We’re laughing, we’re talking, having a great time. Where else can we do this in Austin?”