‘Into the Fire’ ministry feeds 150 people each week on streets of Detroit

ROYAL OAK — Once a week, Bob Fagan spends about an hour between Masses at St. Mary Parish in Royal Oak at the “sandwich intake desk,” collecting bag lunches prepared by St. Mary parishioners to feed homeless people.

It’s a program Fagan has dubbed “Into the Fire” — a strange name for a sandwich ministry, he admits.

“You might recall your grandparents using the phrase, ‘out of the frying pan, and into the fire,’ to describe someone who has escaped a bad situation, only to land in a worse one,” Fagan said.

In this case, the “fire” is the metaphorical fire of the homeless situation in which Fagan finds those who need his help. About 25 weeks a year, from April to October, “Into the Fire” fills about 150 homeless bellies each week, primarily in the city of Detroit. That’s 150 people eating, instead of 150 people starving.

Many of those Fagan serves are patrons of the Neighborhood Services Organization, a Detroit-based nonprofit that provides critical services to youth, families and adults, as well as a nearby methadone clinic. Detroit city parks, a few soup kitchens, and various shelters provide most of the balance.

The trunk of Bob Fagan's car is filled with sandwiches and supplies as he distributes food to the homeless in Detroit. (Photo by Rich Perry)
Bob Fagan delivers food supplies to the St. Leo Soup Kitchen in Detroit.

Fagan and ministry co-founder Patrick Jones drive through city neighborhoods looking for people in need, guided by Rob, a homeless man who lives nearby and volunteers each week helping to make and pack sandwiches. On the rare occasion there are extra sandwiches, Fagan might walk them across the street to the Royal Oak Methodist Church’s soup kitchen. No sandwiches are ever wasted.

Fagan isn’t as young as he used to be. He lugs around a small but heavy oxygen tank, and hot days make things more difficult for him. But his determination is to “deal with anything, anything, to keep this going.”

“I was raised to give back,” said Fagan, a 12-year parishioner at St. Mary’s. “I didn’t have a dream, and a light didn’t go off. It’s just the right thing to do.”

Fagan’s sister is a retired nun, and they go to Mass together each week. His 25-year stint as a union rep also “reinforced my idea of service and caregiving,” he says.

After receiving the “go-ahead” from St. Mary’s Christian service committee and parish council, along with pastor Fr. Paul Snyder, in 2016, Fagan and Jones put together a sandwich schedule for about 60 families, and they haven’t looked back since. A total of 1,680 sandwiches in 2016 led to more than 3,200 in 2017. This year’s output should match last year’s, he said, even with five fewer scheduled weeks.

The sandwiches made by St. Mary parishioners stay inside certain guidelines. Meat, cheese, and bread are basic ingredients, but it’s important to keep any condiment from soaking into the bread; so mayonnaise, tuna salad, egg salad and peanut butter (due to allergies) aren’t allowed. Lettuce and tomato are difficult to keep fresh, Fagan says, but some parishioners donate chips, cookies, candy, and bottled water to round out a good lunchtime meal.

When asked to describe the rewarding feeling he gets during his weekly sandwich rounds, Fagan doesn’t hesitate.

“It’s humbling to see the smiles on their faces,” Fagan said. “They have the sandwiches in their mouths before we can even drive away. They say things like, ‘God sent you,’ and ‘I haven’t eaten in two days.’ We know, for certain, a difference has been made.”

Patrick Jones, co-founder of Into the Fire Ministry, and Rob, a homeless man who helps the ministry locate homeless individuals in the city, hold up a sandwich bag insert given to sandwich recipients describing where free medical and dental services can be found. (Photo by Rich Perry)

Despite the fact that some of the neighborhoods he visits can be rough, Fagan seemed surprised at the suggestion that safety might be a concern during his sandwich outings.

“We don’t even think about that,” Fagan said, eyebrows raised, as if considering it for the first time. “I guess maybe we should, sometimes, but we don’t.”

While Fagan receives plenty of feedback from his sandwich recipients each week, his ministry is also reinforced by the positive comments from others at St. Mary, who enjoy pitching in to help. Often, families will volunteer together to make sandwiches, providing a learning experience for children and a chance for adults to live out their Christian calling. It’s not uncommon for parishioners to volunteer week after week, asking Fagan what else they can do to help and relating to him how the ministry affects their own faith.

Although the need is present, even in the winter, Fagan restricts “Into the Fire” to the warmer months for “lots of reasons.”

“When it gets cold, the homeless go inside, and are tougher to find. Some go south. Some just disappear, and we don’t know where they go,” Fagan said. “Shelters step up their own ministries at this time.”

“It’s humbling to see the smiles on their faces,” Fagan said. “They have the sandwiches in their mouths before we can even drive away. They say things like, ‘God sent you,’ and ‘I haven’t eaten in two days.’ We know, for certain, a difference has been made.”

Though he is confident St. Mary parishioners would support the ministry year-round, he’s also cognizant of the need to avoid burnout among the volunteers.

“They’d probably support ‘Into the Fire’ all year, but I like to give the sandwich-makers a break, especially during winter, the school year, and the holidays,” Fagan said. “Heck, I need a break, too.”

Fagan is happy to talk about his role in “Into the Fire,” but he insists it’s the volunteer sandwich-makers who keep the ministry running.

“This isn’t about me,” Fagan said. “This is about the sandwich makers at St. Mary. It’s the parishioners there who feed the homeless. We can’t afford to make 150 sandwiches a week; it’s about the St. Mary people.”

When times get tough, Fagan relies on his past experiences to persevere in faith.

“You always meet difficult people and difficult situations, whenever you try to do anything. I learned that in business, I learned that as a Union Rep, and I’ve learned that with Into the Fire. You just get through it,” Fagan said.

Fagan said he hopes increased attention to his ministry might spark similar efforts in other parishes — and he’s happy to lend his expertise if others want to replicate his system.

“I can’t do it for other parishes, but I do have the template,” Fagan said. “It works great, and I’m happy to help.”