It’s not a Christmas tradition Al Marks asked for, this whole barbecuing chicken, sausages and ‘dogs in the wee hours for a few dozen of society’s forgotten souls.
Granted, the Sparrow Project’s 2 to 3:30 a.m. serving of hot food late Friday night — Saturday morning, actually — to the community’s struggling has only happened on Christmas maybe three times in 21 years.
No matter. Marks and fellow First Baptist Church pastor Mike Brown have been there every week, welcoming the hungry in the parking while most of the town sleeps.
“It’s not in my job description,” Marks said. “It’s in my description.”
This week, Marks led a handful of volunteers serving up grilled grub while Brown was up near Redding with family. It’s usually both pastors or at least one every early Saturday behind the grill. Never have both been absent.
“Not once,” said Marks, 69. “There’s always one of us here.”
The feat isn’t lost on the amiable pastor.
“That would register as a miracle,” smiled Marks. “One or the other may end up being saints, I don’t know.”
For now, he’ll settle for being a cook, considering this whole “feeding the poor” thing as one of his numerous assignments from the heavens.
“My wife stopped trying to talk me out of this years ago,” Marks said. “It’s something I want to do.”
Marks turns the chicken until it’s mildly charred.
“We’ve never had it go beyond edible,” Marks laughed.
It’s 2:15 a.m. The chicken is dropped in a metal container and replaced on the grill by nearly 100 hot dogs and sausages. Close by, volunteer Stevie Espinoza prepares to ladle soup from a giant kettle, definitely comfort food as the temperatures dip.
“Some people come just for the soup,” Marks said.
Espinoza is thrilled just to help, whether 30 show up — around the number this weekend — or up to 125.
“Just trying to give back,” Espinoza said. “I used to be ‘out there.’”
That would be on the streets and in prison. Espinoza, 56, did plenty of time in notorious Pelican Bay and was 17 getting his first taste of San Quentin.
“I lied about my age,” he said.
A hooded visitor strolls up to the kettle.
“Merry Christmas,” said Espinoza, serving a small Styrofoam bowl of soup described by Marks simply as “a blend of stuff.”
“Merry Christmas,” said the grateful visitor.
“I like doing this,” Espinoza said. “That’s why I do it. I feel good when it’s over.”
A small tattoo — “RIP” on a tombstone — on the left side of the back of Espinoza’s neck is a reminder of his past.
“A little gang thing,” he said, grateful he “finally got tired of it.”
It’s closing in on 3 a.m. and Marks takes a few minutes to inspire with a four-minute sermon.
“I’m hoping and praying 2021 is better than 2020. I don’t see how it could be any worse. It’s been a tough year,” Marks said. “People wonder ‘What’s the point?’ People are losing hope. Hope is an important thing. Hope is tied to faith.”
“It says in the scripture, against all hope, Abraham hoped,” Marks said. “One of the worst things you can do in your life is to give up hope. Hope gets us through all this stuff.”
For some, the hope is to stave off hunger through the night.
“Every week, we have someone new come in, though a lot have been here before,” Marks said, emphasizing “we’re never disappointed when we don’t have as many as the week before. We would love for everybody to have a place to go eat. If we came out here one night and nobody showed up, that would be great.”
Realistically, the need for the Sparrow Project will always be there, Marks said.
“Jesus said the needy will always be with you; the poor will always be with you. There will always be someone in need,” Marks said.
For those who come out for the meal, there’s no interrogation, Marks said.
“We don’t ask to see a ‘homeless credential.’ If they’re out here at this time in the morning, they can have some chicken,” Marks said. “This is mainly for hungry people.”
Count “Brian” among them. Walking from the waterfront with his 2-year-old Husky, “Louise,” Brian takes in a late-night meal at the downtown church every three, maybe four weeks and has done it for two years along with the day-time Sparrow Project meals.
“This means the world to me,” he said. “It’s everything. It’s a blessing to come here.”
Brian heard about the free meals program through a friend.
“I’ve always kept it in mind,” he said, acknowledging that in good and bad times, “everybody needs a bite.”
It was retired pest control employee Jerry McCluskey who unknowingly started the early morning meal in 1999 as he parked near the church and munched on a sandwich. It was 2 a.m. and McCluskey was propositioned by a prostitute.
“I asked why she was selling herself so cheap,” McCluskey said in a 2019 Times-Herald interview. “She said ‘Because I’m hungry.’”
McCluskey met with the First Baptist pastors — and the Sparrow Project was born. And, despite talks of retirement, Marks and Brown continue as the outposts for middle-of-the-night meals.
“Sometimes, Mike and I will say ‘We fooled ’em again. They think we know what we’re doing,’” grinned Marks.
It’s 3:40 a.m. The last of the hungry has dispersed. Marks and the volunteers return the grill, the soup kettle, the coffee containers and the rest of the late-night evidence back inside the church for cleaning.
Marks figures he’ll be done at 4 a.m. There’s no mental “de-briefing” on the drive home.
“All I see is my pillow,” he said.