Families gather for a weekly free dinner in Pilsen

For more than a year, Jesus Galvan roamed the streets of Chicago, lost to substance abuse and financial difficulties. He said he and his family were border homeless. Thanks to the help and guidance of strangers, Galvan and his family got back on their feet.

Now Galvan and his wife Mercedes Guzman are doing the same for others. From time to time, the couple take a break from selling their homemade firewoods on Racine Avenue and 47th Street early in the morning to make some to help feed the homeless or other people in need.

“We know how it feels to be hungry,” Galvan said as he invited people to the Pilsen neighborhood on Tuesday night to grab a tamale — or two.

The couple had made around 200 tamales to donate for the free community dinner to be held every Tuesday from November 2021 at Hope Church. As gas prices rose and inflation hit the pockets of families in the area, Tuesday dinners have become an important part of the neighborhood, feeding more than 100 people from diverse backgrounds week after week.

For some, it’s the only hot meal they get for the week. For others, it is the only time they do not eat alone.

“It’s not just the homeless or those in dire need,” said Galvan as his wife passed on to Tamale. “It is a place for the elderly who live alone, single people, families who are struggling financially in these times despite having a good job, it is for everyone.”

The couple wakes up at 4 a.m. to prepare pork and chicken tamarind with green and red salsa. “We are grateful for what we have now and we are very happy to help,” Guzmán said.

Since the first dinner in early November 2021, the number of attendees this summer has nearly doubled, said chef Benjamin Arias, one of the church’s members and head of community dinners in Pilsen. He said Arias worked in the Chicago restaurant industry for more than a decade before volunteering his time at the church.

It all started with a host of Taco Tuesdays and only 30 attendees. Dinner is now a full course meal and more than 100 people attend each week. Although the menu is determined by charity, most times it is a traditional Mexican dish, Arias said.

“We try to make it reflect the community we serve,” he said.

A group of members and volunteers from Hope Church – a Christian institution headquartered in La Grange and several other campuses in the Chicago area – to find a way to help those in need as communities hit by the pandemic of color in 2020 started gathering. That is when the church opened in 1809 S.O. with the intention of cooking food for the community. Invested in building a commercial kitchen at their Pilsen campus on Racine Avenue.

Although the meals are funded by donations to the church, Arias said the dinners are not “the pool to fill the Sunday service”.

“Despite their faith, everyone is welcome,” he said. The group was held Tuesday evening at Marquette Park Fieldhouse, 6743 S. Also delivers food in Kedzi Ave. Over 50 meals and some other groceries are delivered weekly.

Elpidia Fierro has lived in the Pilsen neighborhood for nearly 50 years and considers herself a religious, Catholic woman. But her home is right in front of Hope Church so she attends dinner every week, she said.

“Everyone is very nice to me and the food is great,” said Pili, as her neighbors call her sitting outside their house with her husband. “The work they do is great for people who live in the area and have nowhere to go.”

Pili said the dinners have united people in the community and are especially important as more people struggle with higher prices at grocery stores.

Dinner has been a blessing for Jasmine Placencia, a single mom of two girls and a longtime Pilsen resident.

“Everyone is suffering in some way or the other and this is something we can count on: a free meal every Tuesday,” she said.

Don Coostra, a senior church pastor, said that as the world began to open up after being hit by COVID-19, the need for food and the hunger of those in need became more apparent and urgent.

The vision, Coostra said, is to open other community dinners in different Chicago neighborhoods, similar to the way they’ve established partnerships in Pilsen and Marquette Park.

“What we have seen is that people are hungry for food and fellowship, but there are also spiritual hungers,” she said.

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