Flagstaff home has given thousands of sack lunches to needy
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — What has become known as “The Jesus House” is not a charity, but over the course of about a decade, the modest home just off North Steves Boulevard, where a “Jesus is Lord” handmade sign is proudly displayed from the chimney, has become a source of support for people experiencing homelessness in Flagstaff.
Last year, it provided nearly 10,000 free lunches for those in need, many of them making a daily commute from Flagstaff Shelter Services to the East Flagstaff Community Library -- and back -- for shelter.
Beneath the plywood sign, jackets wait to be claimed, draped over the tan picket fence in the morning light. A note by the front door offers free Bibles to those who ask.
Inside, Ray and Martha Baca sit watching television from their reclining chairs, still rocking from when they sat down moments before. Minutes later, though, the doorbell chimes again and the couple is on their feet once more, opening the door to another complete stranger.
Their miniature poodle, Daisy, doesn’t even bark.
“Morning! Do you want lunch? Coffee?” Ray asks the visitor, taking the request with a smile before closing the door and hurrying to the kitchen alongside his wife.
Like a familiar dance, the two side-step around each other to toss a sandwich from the fridge into a plastic grocery bag already filled with other snacks, pour a coffee from one of the two full pots waiting on the counter and grab a water bottle.
“We’ve got everything ready here because, as I tell my wife, if we don’t give a good service, they’re liable to go next door!” Ray joked on his way back to the front door, meal in hand.
Passing the food and drinks out the door, they wish the stranger a blessed day and return to their chairs.
In this way, from 6 a.m. to after 8 p.m. every day, individuals, groups and families will approach the house and minutes later leave with a meal, a Bible or even winter gear.
The Bacas don’t preach or ask questions, they simply serve with a smile because they feel it is what they have been called to do.
“We don’t do it to be glorified,” Martha said. “It is what’s in our heart and we try to help out people the best we can.”
“We’re just people. We’re just doing what the Lord would want us to do,” Ray said. “It’s not something we looked to do, it just happened and it has evolved into what it is today. When I give a lunch, I get a joy inside. It’s just very rewarding.”
Their only rule is that people must come to the house to receive a meal, to prevent people taking more than their share. Otherwise, the couple will serve people of any age, race or situation. When families arrive, they will even add juice boxes and candy for the children, if they have them.
This routine started about 10 years ago, when a man approached the home because he saw the sign on their chimney and needed something to eat. They obliged and from there, by word of mouth only, the news spread and the Bacas have had people arriving at their front door in increasing amounts every year.
With faith alone as their continued motivator, they have begun calling their efforts “The Lunchers Ministry.”
Though the Bacas only began counting meals served last year, they expect over the years they have served near 100,000 of these sack lunches. Last week, they gave out 179 meals. The week before, it was 140. At this rate, they are expecting to surpass last year’s numbers by May, when they began their count.
“It’s very unpredictable. Some days we might do 50 lunches, some days 15 or 20,” Ray said. “It’s just very inconsistent, but we try to be prepared for whatever.”
The couple aims to have anywhere from 25 to 40 meals prepared in advance and will make more throughout the day if needed. Each lunch typically includes a sandwich, chips, fruit and a cookie.
They estimate it costs between 75 and 90 cents to prepare these meals, thanks to strict adherence to weekly sales. The two will pore over the ads each Wednesday before leaving on a citywide route to secure the supplies they need.
“We try to be very conscious about how much we spend,” Ray said. “We’re not extravagant by any means in the things we buy. We’re always looking for the best deal.”
At first they were hesitant to accept monetary donations, especially from the people they were serving, who would offer whatever they had -- even 7 cents -- in exchange for the kindness, but now they carefully tuck these donations away in an envelope, all of which are used for food purchases only.
Their church, Beth Yeshua Messianic Congregation, supplies the Bibles -- totaling nearly 300 given away last year -- and neighbors and members of their congregation donate jackets and food items. Some people who received lunches have even come back months later, after improving their situation, to make a donation and express their appreciation.
Groups of strangers have approached the home as well, even after dark, to drop off cases of snacks and water bottles. These evening visitors have been captured by the Baca’s camera system -- a present from their children, who wanted reassurance of their parents’ safety.
The Bacas said they have not needed these devices, though, because they have never felt threatened by the people receiving the lunches.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s always been good people,” Martha said, who even allows her great-grandchildren to pass the meals over the doorsill during their visits. “At least they’ll learn that they can help out people. It’s something that they can look forward to in the future -- being nicer to people.”
Though the Bacas never ask for names or information from the people they serve, they often get to know their daily visitors. Reflecting on some of their past visitors, who have since died, they became emotional, as if they had lost a family member.
Although they said donating to a food bank or pantry would be less constricting than their current schedule, if they abandoned their operations, they would miss out on these one-to-one interactions; they have not even considered stopping their efforts, but plan to go until they cannot anymore.
“We feel a certain responsibility to do this. They depend on us to some degree,” Ray said. “We’re not, by any means, fulfilling all their needs, but they do appreciate that we’re here and do that for them.”
Then the doorbell rang again.