Saturdays in the Park

Sitting on my window sill and staring at them every Saturday was not enough. Apparently I needed to go down to Washington Park and experience what it was like to hand out sandwiches on the sidewalk.

Sitting on my window sill and staring at them every Saturday was not enough. Apparently I needed to go down to Washington Park and experience what it was like to hand out sandwiches on the sidewalk.

The invitation was in response to an earlier column in this space ("Looking for Help That Helps," issue of Jan. 2). The members of the Vineyard Community Church in Springdale — about 30 people who come down every Saturday morning, rain, snow or shine, and give away food — felt I didn't understand the good they were doing.

Honestly, I have to say I wasn't enthused about the idea. First, there were the trust issues. Not returning phone calls to discuss the situation, for starters. Then they told me they'd tried to work with churches and church outreach services along the park and the Drop Inn Center, when the leaders of those organizations said that wasn't the case.

One Vineyard Church member asked me what I did to help the neighborhood. I told her that, while she was living in the outer reaches of our metro area, I had set up my home on the second floor of a building across the street from Washington Park, where we were standing.

All this pitting one church against the other put me in the awkward journalistic position of deciding which Christian was telling the truth. You might guess why I'd be hedging my bets.

This is a good time to explain that I don't like or regularly attend church (unless I'm trying to appease my grandmother). Business is business, and I choose to spend my time and money elsewhere.

Still, I can't deny that these are good people: the fine Vineyard folks; the preacher who sets up his loudspeakers to condemn everyone in his park "congregation" and perform a horrendous rendition of "We Are the World;" the churchgoers who set up their food table on the south side of Washington Park Saturday evenings; and the many others yet to bring their own brand of do-goodness to my neck of the woods.

You mean so well that it pains me to explain that what you're doing just isn't accomplishing much. And it might be hurting more than you realize. Which, in turn, makes you really selfish.

When I joined the Vineyard contingent that day, I spoke at length with Lucy, a former Roman Catholic who's now a Vineyard member and who's been coming down to the park every Saturday for two years. She wanted to introduce me to several people whom church members had helped, and I ended up meeting three or so.

As I volunteered with Lucy, passing out plastic bags to each person in order to collect their leftover wrappers and trash, I could tell many people were happy to see her. She seemed genuinely happy to see them.

One man said he'd been living at the Drop Inn Center for several months waiting to get government disability benefits. He thought it was taking too long. Lucy wrote a letter to Sen. George Voinovich to help get the ball rolling. Apparently it helped.

Another church member helped connect a couple to social service agencies that provided them with a subsidized apartment.

Tommy Banks, a homeless man who said he'd been living in Over-the-Rhine for 37 years, has benefited from Vineyard members' generosity.

"They are the best," he told me. "They do the most for us down here. The Drop (Inn) doesn't do shit."

Banks also said that many in Washington Park take advantage of the Vineyard members because of their kindness.

"I don't do it," he said, "but a lot are just pulling their legs."

Lucy implored me at the end of our conversation to "be nice" when I wrote this follow-up column. I could tell that my criticism in January hurt her feelings — and probably others who volunteer.

Larry, another Vineyard member who organizes the Saturdays in Over-the-Rhine, said he's been willing and trying to work with other organizations in the neighborhood. He hopes they still want to work with him. His sincerity is compelling.

This effort doesn't have to be wasted. Vineyard and others can join those already in Over-the-Rhine to better the neighborhood and to help create meaningful change in the lives of those they feed.

Until then — and my sentiment isn't personal — I won't be happy to see the loads of friendly volunteers pull up every Saturday across from my apartment, perpetuating a problem that doesn't seem to get any better.

Contact Joe Wessels: [email protected]

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