Maria Dzida has been the volunteer director of Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen in Santa Ana, Calif. for 23 years – it’s what she feels God calls her to do. In fact, she has a saying about that.
“If an angel of the Lord should suddenly appear to you saying ‘Be not afraid’, be very afraid,” she says. “Because God is either calling you to someplace you’d really rather not go – or you’re pregnant.”
As a matter of fact, that’s literally what happened to Dzida one evening in January 1990, when she was approached by a local priest and asked if she’d take over Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen as a volunteer director. If she didn’t, it would shut down. So she said yes, not realizing the amount of work she was signing up for.
The next day, she learned she was pregnant with her fourth child, whom she would appropriately name, Joseph.
It was a fitting series of events for Dzida, for whom hearing God’s call means treating a volunteer position almost like a full-time job. When she started at Loaves and Fishes, it only provided a simple meal to its guests. Now about 1,000 folks in need come through every weekend, and it’s evolved into a multi-service operation that provides doctors, ESL classes, grocery bags of food and even a scholarship program, in addition to a meal that’s “gotten a bit more elaborate” over the years.
That means during the week, Dzida is shopping for supplies, finding ways into doctors’ and teachers’ schedules, ironing out any legal issues (mostly having to do with immigration, since many of her guests are undocumented) and fundraising.
The kitchen’s motto is “When a guest comes, Christ comes,” and Dzida is honest about that being a challenge sometimes, with folks who are addicted, abusive, mentally-ill or gang-involved. “But that’s the call,” she says, adding that “obligation” wouldn’t be an accurate descriptor. “It’s more of a grace-filled privilege.”
Dzida immersed herself in the world of the marginalized from an early age, beginning in the third grade, when her school would hold class collections for “what we used to arrogantly call the ‘pagan babies.’” That was her first realization that not everyone was as fortunate as she was.
By the time she graduated from Loyola Marymount University (LMU) in 1974 with degrees in sociology and political science, she says she was able to “articulate more precisely the role of justice” in our relationships with those around us: “I could more clearly see justice was both God’s wish for us and God’s demand of us.”
She then spent a year in a “little Eskimo village” in Alaska with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, where she learned to cook and live on $20 a month. She said that was “God’s way of leading her to doing something.” But before she got to Loaves and Fishes, she would get married, start a family, start and not finish one master’s degree (social work at USC) and complete two others: a master’s of public administration (Long Beach State University, 1981) and a master’s in pastoral studies (LMU, 1995). She’d also hold a few other jobs: with Texas’ state welfare department, the Social Security Administration, and the city of Anaheim, Calif.
But later, Loaves and Fishes “fell into my lap,” she says, adding that at the time, “it seemed like a small thing.”
She’s frank about how demanding being director can be. “If I had only known what this yes to Loaves and Fishes was going to involve, I don’t think I would have accepted it quite so enthusiastically,” she said.
But she keeps offering her help. “LMU helped me to hear ever more strongly the cry of the poor, and helped me to realize that once you hear the cry of the poor, you can never not hear the cry of the poor.”
That cry is also a call – “The call to be the best human being I can [be] as part of this vast human family who are my kin,” Dzida said. “It’s when we forget that that our world begins to fall apart.”
As for why she won’t let herself ignore that cry, Dzida channels the late Fr. Pedro Arrupe, S.J.
“Nothing is more important than finding God,” she said. “And that’s how I find God.”
By José Martinez, Loyola Marymount University