For I Was Hungry And You Gave Me Food
12/18/2015 07:56AM ● Published by Aimee Cormier
By Anne Minvielle | Photos by Shanna Perkins
“Spread the Gospel, and when necessary, use words.” This quotation, attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, has been instrumental in guiding the ministry that Richard Guidry has taken as his own. Guidry has read extensively about the saint who is known for his dedication to the poor, his devotion to Lady Poverty and giving away his inheritance and choosing a life preaching and serving the poor.
Guidry’s embrace of this mission is fitting. Especially in light of the faith based social work of St. Francis Diner in New Iberia, where he has found a niche. The diner opened its doors on Aug. 3, 1987, under the direction of Catholic Church parishes and has become a community project with individuals from various faiths and occupations assisting in the chores, from chopping vegetables and serving plates to sweeping and mopping floors. The diner operates on grants and donations from individuals, businesses, churches, the United Way, parish and city governments, as well as a trust fund.
According to Guidry, St. Francis Diner served 74,545 meals in 2015. “In 2015, we should be near 80,000 plus because of the increase in breakfast meals served. We also feed the hungry on Saturdays,” he adds. That amounts to about 175 meals a day. On weekdays, the diner serves biscuits and doughnuts for morning meals and a full noon meal. Breakfast is served from 8:30 – 9:00 a.m. and a full dinner is served from 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Workers begin cooking at 7:00 am and are finished at 10:00 am.
The way Guidry found the diner could be deemed providential. After leaving his volunteer work at United Way, Guidry found himself at odds. He was working on weekends, but searching for some way to help others during the week. After retiring from a 31-year career as a medical technologist at Iberia General Hospital, his part time work gave him free hours to pursue volunteer work. More than 15 years ago, he followed the suggestion of a friend to investigate the work of the diner. “I talked to people there and I was hooked,” he says. For about a year, Guidry peeled potatoes and did any menial task he was assigned.
Soon, Guidry found himself in the position of vice president and discovered that there was a need for reorganization of the diner. In addition, a problem presented itself in the form of a gas leak. “We called the gas company, and soon the Fire Marshall came and closed us down,” Guidry recalls. “We knew what we needed in terms of new equipment to satisfy the marshal, but we didn’t have the funds to purchase anything,” he adds.
In an effort to get the diner up and running as soon as possible, Guidry reached out to Gloria Girouard with the United Way. She knew of some funds that were a part of a class action lawsuit filed against a railroad company responsible for an accident in the city, and some of those funds were available to non-profit organizations. He reminiscences, “Gloria told me what attorneys to see, and I wrote a grant document to apply for the funds. We had to be inspected and in a short time, we were awarded funds to complete the necessary work for the fire marshal to let us open again.” The diner was able to purchase a stove and an oven. A local civic organization donated a steam warmer. Guidry says that they later received donations of a refrigerator and a dishwasher.
Through the years, the diner board welcomed gifts from generous donors. “We have been truly blessed,” Guidry says. Through a grant, the diner purchased tables and chairs for the eating area.
Guidry is now President of the Board of St. Francis Diner, and his partner in his work is Executive Director Juanita Lewis. Although, she like to refer to herself as the “director of everything.” Lewis found St. Francis Diner in a way that could only be arranged by someone greater than humanity. According to Lewis, “I have been here for 15 years. I was out of a job and lived just four blocks from the diner, but I had no idea what they did there. Even though I saw the people there, I never stopped. Someone called me and asked if I would be interested in the job. I was encouraged, but my first love was caring for children. I went for an interview and I have been here ever since. I love what I do, and everything comes from my heart.”
Both Lewis and Guidry agree that every time they face a crisis, something comes along and the problem can be solved. Guidry explains, “One time, we had a board meeting, and I announced that we were $20,000 in the red at the beginning of the fiscal year. We were in a panic. The following Tuesday, Juanita received a little letter, very humbly written. In it was a check for $20,000, money left by a gentleman in his will. That was divine intervention.”
On another occasion, Guidry realized that the diner needed $18,000 and decided to write a letter to the editor of the local newspaper asking for help. Lewis says, “ Before he got back from the errand, I had a call from a man who told me to be watching the mail. We received his check shortly after. It was for $18,000.”
Recently, the diner received a most needed facelift. Lowes volunteered to provide $18,000 in materials for updates in the kitchen. Lewis said, “We needed a carpenter and I couldn’t find one. Someone told me about one. A group came to serve from Trinity Baptist, and my friend said that the carpenter was in the group. I talked to him right away about what we needed, and he was ready to begin.” This was just another example of the work of the Lord – needing something, and the something appearing. The diner was to experience more of those unexplained solutions.
Following the theme of St. Francis who says, “For it is in giving that we receive,” St. Francis Diner operates as a non-profit organization whose mission is to serve whoever comes in the line needing to be fed. According to Lewis, “We serve everyone, no questions asked. If someone comes and I know they can afford to feed themselves, I don’t say a word. We don’t require identification or any proof of need. There are those who think we should require that, but I say that it is none of our business.”
An integral part of the diner’s work includes garage sales that serve as fundraising for the necessary food and expenses. According to Guidry, “We have a building on North Street and the volunteers who work there are dedicated and devoted. They take their work very seriously. They sell items for pennies on the dollar. Their donations from the garage sales are often $20,000. Popular with the public are bag sales that are offered for one or two dollars.”
Richard Guidry has a real ministry, as Lewis says, “He is a God-sent man.” Guidry says it is really no surprise that he would become involved with feeding the hungry. He grew up witnessing such giving in his own family. “My mama and my grandmother both cooked and fed anyone who asked. My grandmother fed wanderers, who were often looking for work. We called them hobos and they traveled by trains. They found themselves close to my grandmother and they would go there for food.”
Likewise, he also recalls the stories of his uncle’s generosity touched him. Guidry says, “My uncle had land and a store. During the Depression, he saved many families by giving them food. I remember the story of how he took IOUs from people with no money. He kept the papers in a type of bottle. The store caught fire and all of the IOUs were destroyed and no one paid him back.”
Guidry began to better understand the generosity of his relatives when he read books on St. Francis of Assisi. He was impressed by the advice that when you put yourself in another’s shoes, compassion could become a fatal condition. That is exactly what volunteers at the diner do. And they soon learn that there is truth in the words of the saint, as well as those of the present and popular head of the Catholic Church on earth, Pope Francis.
When Guidry learned that the last elected pope had chosen the name Francis, he says that he knew that new things would happen in the church. He was certain that his leadership in feeding the poor in the spirit of St. Francis was a good and pleasing thing. That pope said, “A Christian is one who encounters the poor, looks them in the eye and touches them.” Guidry might add that it is the volunteers at the diner who are touched, by the gratitude of those served
Pope Francis also said that the choice of his name was based on his desire to give service to the poor as St. Francis did and that service would become evident in his trips to diners the world over, where he would serve and eat with those in need.
Guidry is a busy man and his volunteer work may only be noticed by those who frequent the diner, but he knows the wisdom of not boasting about one’s good works. He is the father of four, two daughters and two sons, who certainly learned to live by the principles that characterize the work of their father, as well as his ancestors. He is married to Marella and Guidry admits that she has graciously accepted the many hours of his volunteer work.
St. Francis of Assisi once wrote, “It is not fitting, when one is in God’s service, to have a gloomy face or a chilling look.” Richard Guidry certainly has no gloomy look. Rather, he is known for his ready smile as well as his faith and service. He heeds the words of the scripture, “Generous people will be blessed, for they share their food with the poor.” Guidry shares with anyone, that he is indeed blessed by his work at St. Francis Diner and will readily tell others what they should do if indeed they wish to feel blessed as well.