Camp Zama volunteers feed hundreds of homeless in Yokohama
YOKOHAMA, Japan (July 9, 2013) -- More than a dozen volunteers work methodically making rice balls filled with a single "umeboshi" -- a small, sour pickled plum bright pink in color. They work through the steam rising from the freshly cooked rice that waters their eyes and reddens their plastic-gloved hands. Their efforts this Sunday evening will go toward feeding more than 200 people who will not eat this meal at a dinner table with loved ones, but more likely alone on a bench or under an elevated train track.
Later that evening, the group arrives just outside the entrance of the Kannai train station. They represent various Masonic lodges -- including Camp Zama's Touchon Lodge 106 -- and also include members of several nearby churches. They stack the "onigiri," or rice balls, they made and also help unload boxes of homemade curry in plastic containers, fried Japanese noodles known as "yakisoba," and miso soup.
A line of homeless Japanese men and women -- most of them look to be in their 50s or older -- stretches back several hundred feet along a concrete walkway. They wait quietly, holding on to their few possessions stuffed in bags, backpacks or small wheeled carts. When the first container of curry is handed out and the line begins to move, it does so in a remarkably orderly fashion.
One member of Touchon Lodge 106, and a longtime participant in the weekly outreach event in Yokohama, says giving back to his community in this way is one of the primary goals of his lodge and others like it.
"When we see a need in the community, we want to volunteer and help out and do those types of things," said Selmer Rozzell, who works at the Camp Zama Post Office. "When we come here and you look at the line [of homeless people], it's something you feel in your heart."
Members of Touchon 106 began their involvement in what has come to be known as the "Sunday Curry Patrol" in early 2012, Rozzell said. His lodge was brought on board at the encouragement of others based at U.S. military installations at Atsugi, Sagamihara and Yokosuka, he said.
He and the other volunteers are eager and willing to help because the circumstances that can lead to one being homeless are sudden and can happen to anyone, Rozzell says.
"Just one natural disaster, and you could be homeless," says Rozzell, referring to the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan in March 2011. "We really want to show people how to give back because we could be in a situation like that one day and we might need some help."
The Sunday Curry Patrol was started 10 years ago by a Filipino woman who asked to be referred to only by her nickname, "Girlie." She passed through Kannai Station every day on her way home and would see the many people who lived on the streets there. She began by making 10 to 20 onigiri and simply passing them out at the station in between her commute.
This became a routine for Girlie until soon, she asked members at her church for help making more food and organizing visits to the station on a weekly basis. As the amount of food they needed to prepare grew, so too did the number of volunteers that eventually came to include those from Touchon 106.
Girlie and her cadre of helpers now cook 20 kilograms of rice and prepare 50 kilograms of vegetables for the curry in order to feed the approximately 300 homeless who show up every week. They also often offer second-hand clothing and travel-size soaps and shampoo bottles.
"We feel happy to give to them," Girlie says. "Our motive is to let these poor people waiting in line feel the love and care God has for them by sharing this little that we have."
In addition to the usual selection of food, this week there is cold water and green tea available for those who have shown up. Sayoko Shiratori, 76, reaches the front of the line with the assistance of a walker with wheels and a small basket on the front. As a volunteer hands her an onigiri and a container of curry, she smiles and says, "Thank you, thank you," in English.
One member of Touchon 106 says he feels deeply honored to have been a part of this outreach effort for the last year and a half.
"It's humbling because I know that each rice ball that I made, somebody is going to eat that and it's not a taken-for-granted meal," says Alan Domingo, manager of the Camp Zama Dining Facility. "It means a lot to us. We all have a sense of pride in what we do here."
Those who help out with the Sunday Curry Patrol come from different organizations and churches of different denominations, but they all share the same goal, Girlie says.
"We believe that whatever good you do for other people, you are doing it for God," says Girlie. "These people who are homeless -- even though we're not their friends and we're not their family, we want them to know there is still somebody in this world who cares for them."