OCEANSIDE — It was 9:15 a.m. and the line for the 10 a.m. Saturday brunch at Brother Benno’s soup kitchen already stretched out to the street. Single men, young couples, families with small children, and a few women stood waiting for a free meal.
I got in line behind 200 other people waiting for food as part of the immersion program that Brother Benno’s offers to help the public better understand and connect with those in need.
The immersion program was created at the request of area churches that want their members to understand those they serve in volunteer efforts.
The immersion experience starts with a brief history of Brother Benno’s all-volunteer operations that feed, house and provide recovery programs for those in need. Next, there is a tour of the facility and adjacent food bank warehouse and furniture thrift store. The morning concludes with a sit-down meal in the soup kitchen.
“Some things cannot be taught, you have to experience them,” Harold Kutler, Brother Benno’s founder, said. “Instead of judging, get in line, eat with them. They’re just regular people that need help.”
Brother Benno’s volunteer Dennis Pinnick led the tour and shared his own struggle through recovery programs and relapses before he got his life in order. Like many fellow volunteers, Pinnick recites how long he has worked at Brother Benno’s to the year and month. He said it has changed his life.
“I’m the happiest guy in the world,” Pinnick said. “I knew this is what I was called to do.”
Pinnick parted with the group of us participating in the immersion program once we got to the food line. His next duty was to emcee in the dining hall, where he took to the stage to tell jokes, play music and invite talented dinners to sing a cappella.
Once inside the dining hall, a waft of home-cooked food hit me. The atmosphere was friendly and orderly. A row of backpacks stuffed with the worldly goods of their owners, including strapped on sleeping bags, sat in a neat row by the entrance.
The food line curved around a corner to the cafeteria serving counter where I picked up a bright yellow tray and chose from that day’s selection of fruit cocktail, spring greens, yogurt, pastries, spaghetti, corn and toasted French bread. Volunteers dished out food and asked if I wanted a whole wrapped pie to take home.
More volunteers were on hand to supervise the dining area, help with seating and take empty trays back to the kitchen.
I found a seat between a family and a man dining alone. As people finished eating, other diners politely asked if a seat was open and parents with multiple children rotated between standing with fussy babies and eating.
Not everyone left right away and no one left empty handed. Within the dining hall, some people browsed the book corner to select a book to take with them, others went to the chapel to air what was on their mind, and some looked through the clothing room racks for free clothes for themselves or their family.
“We want to give them hope,” Kutler said. “Love is the thing we hunger most for. We’re all in it together.”
As I was getting ready to leave, Pinnick asked me how I was doing, chatted about the program and gave me a hug.
Bear hugs are a tradition at Brother Benno’s. Kutler’s wife, Kay, started the tradition more than 25 years ago by giving each diner a hug and welcoming them to eat. Kay now suffers from Parkinson’s disease. Her welcome hugs are a fond memory for Pinnick who carries on the tradition.
I walked to my car and saw fellow diners leave by car and on foot. A mile down the road I recognized a man from the dining hall who was still walking. I wondered what the rest of his day would be like.
Brother Benno’s is at 3260 Production Ave.