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placeholder February 3, 2014   •   VOL. 52, NO. 3   •   Oakland, CA

Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ, helps distribute food to more than 200 people on Jan. 16.
josÉ luis aguirre/The Catholic Voice

Catholic Worker: Story of great heroism

Get involved

Volunteers and donors are welcome.

Checks can be mailed to:

Oakland Catholic Worker
P.O. Box 19277
Oakland, CA 94619

Donations of food or other
items — call first — can be dropped off at:

Oakland Catholic Worker
4848 International Blvd.
Oakland CA 94601

Volunteers welcome.
Contact first to visit or apply.

Speakers are available
to visit parishes.

Contact: 510-533-7375 or oaklandcatholicworker.org

The bishop of Oakland removed his jacket, accepted the loan of a black baseball cap emblazoned OAK, tucked the pectoral cross — a symbol of his office — into his shirt pocket and began hefting 15-pound bags of russet potatoes into shopping carts, baby strollers and grocery bags.

Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ, made a working visit to the Oakland Catholic Worker on Jan. 16, an unseasonably warm and sunny day. Thursday is a busy day at the house, a mural-fronted two-story structure on International Boulevard and 50th Avenue in Oakland.

That's the day the Oakland Catholic Worker community distributes food from the Alameda County Food Bank to whoever turns up. Numbered tickets — this day, little slips of purple paper — are handed out and the line stretched along International, turning onto 50th Avenue. More than 200 tickets will be distributed this day to a diverse group of people — elderly people with grocery carts, young mothers with strollers, women who walk up to the tables heavy with produce, silently holding open well-used grocery bags, and shaking their heads to indicate what they can't use.

The produce this day — potatoes, yams, apples, cabbage and tangerines — are supplemented with canned tuna and healthy, day-old breads.

The food distribution is just one of the services offered at Oakland Catholic Worker, which is undergoing a renaissance.

In the mid-1980s, Oakland Catholic Worker served as a sanctuary for refugees fleeing war-torn El Salvador and Guatemala. Today, many of those families, settled and prospering in the Bay Area, are the ones doing the helping.

Among them was Barbara Zavala, who on this day carried a plate of tamales, wrapped in foil, and protected with a thick towel, to serve the volunteers. The single mother of eight children had been helped when she had come to Oakland.

Before the bishop began his service on the food line, he met with staff members, volunteers and guests at Catholic Worker. Going around the table in the tidy dining room — decorated with colorful posters with images and quotes from the late Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero — Bishop Barber heard stories, in English and Spanish, from those who live, work or volunteer at Oakland Catholic Worker.

Among the first to greet Bishop Barber was volunteer John Hermann. Hermann was hard to miss, with his Vietnam veteran hat and Navy T-shirt.

Hermann had just completed his run to the food bank, returning with tangerines — 978 pounds, he noted — in his Toyota pickup.

Carmelo Zavala was one of the first from El Salvador to seek sanctuary at Oakland Catholic Worker. His wife had been brutally killed, he collected his children and made his way to the United States.

From that home base of Oakland Catholic Worker, the family thrived here. All of his children have graduated from college. His cousin serves on the board.

"A great story of heroism, courage and faith," said Robert LaSalle-Klein, who served as director of Oakland Catholic Worker for 10 years, beginning in the late 1980s.

Today, Oakland Catholic Worker continues to serve immigrants from Latin America. Transitional housing is offered, as is assistance with obtaining documents and health care.

Five days a week, a noontime meal is prepared and served to anyone who comes to the door and asks.

As the bishop helped hand out potatoes, he said, "I am impressed at how the Catholic Worker community has maintained this organization for 25 years and has helped so many people. I am very proud for their work and good image they show of Christ and the Church."

Staff writer José Luis Aguirre contributed to this report.

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