Unlike several men seeking donations for a new church, Bryan James walked the lanes of clogged traffic at Marbach Road and Southwest Loop 410 on Saturday afternoon seeking what most people take for granted.
Under gray skies, James held a brown cardboard sign with a message that beseeched motorists for help, any help. Some drivers slipped him a few coins; most stared straight ahead as if any eye contact might turn them to stone.
James, sometimes homeless, was used to being invisible to passersby.
But he wasn’t ready for the friendly African woman clad in colorful robes and head wrap who drove up to a corner gas station in a white pickup filled with provisions.
The woman, Pastor Shetigho Nakpodia, 68, beckoned to James, who was clothed in a well-worn blue hoodie, black sweat pants, scuffed sneakers and a protective mask. After she asked about his welfare, the pastor of Redeemer’s Praise Church handed him a bag of food, a green blanket and two pairs of thick black socks.
Then she pressed a hand to James’ chest and prayed aloud for him. As he cradled his gifts, the man shed a tear.
“This gives you a piece of hope,” James, 24, said as the pastor blessed another man on a bike before she left. “There is light at the end of the tunnel.”
The humanitarian stop at the busy intersection was part of Nakpodia’s and her East Side church’s extended ministry to the unsheltered living in the suburbs. Last year, while driving across the city, she noticed encampments at areas along Walzem, Wurzbach and Perrin Beitel roads. In June, Nakpodia began expanding her meal deliveries beyond downtown streets.
According to San Antonio’s most recent Point-in-Time Count, conducted in January 2020, there were 2,932 homeless in the city. The report stated 57 percent of people experiencing homelessness the night of the count were sheltered, such as at Haven for Hope, and 43 percent were unsheltered.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg supports faith-based efforts to help the homeless, such as Nakpodia’s work.
“The bottom line is folks who are living on the street need help and we need to treat them as members of family,” Nirenberg said. “It’s an intense effort that requires working with the individual to resolve the situation, that is what a compassionate approach requires. Treating them like God’s children, like all of us.”
For the past six years, the pastor and team of volunteers have left the church at 107 S. Pine St. every Saturday to deliver meals to the homeless at several places in and around downtown. The caravan stops at the corner of Pine and Iowa streets, the Salvation Army on Nolan street, Travis Park, Central Library and ends at the Haven for Hope parking lot.
At each location, clusters of people swarm the church members when they arrive. Nakpodia said volunteers deliver 250 plates to people living on downtown streets.
On Jan. 23, the church will take part in DreamWeek, the 10-day summit with hundreds of events across the city that celebrate humanity, civil and civic engagement, inspired by the works of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
Their event, titled “1,000 Plates for the Hungry,” calls for 50 people to each pick up 20 meals at 12:30 p.m. at Redeemer’s Praise and distribute to the hungry in their neighborhood. Nakpodia said the first 50 volunteers will receive food that is designated for anyone in need, including the homeless, seniors, disabled and the homebound.
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In addition to their work downtown on Saturday mornings, Nakpodia and members of her team now spend Saturday afternoons some 13 miles away from the church, in the Marbach Road area to reach out to the people who live on the margins there.
Recently, she ventured to the area by herself as volunteers delivered meals downtown. But she wasn’t alone, she emphasized. Her faith, she said, is always by her side.
She stopped at a fenced-in lot where derelict lean-tos rested upon cracked-concrete slabs. Nakpodia announced herself as she stopped near two people buried beneath plastic sheets and metal debris as chill winds whipped across the empty square.
No one stirred.
She said the people staying there didn’t know her purpose yet and hadn’t been around enough for them to trust her. Nakpodia said she’ll keep stopping by so they’ll come to realize that when they see her white pickup labeled with her church’s name she means them no harm.
She kept driving along the Loop 410 access road and stopped at a sidewalk where a woman slept, cloaked in blankets atop a flattened, gray tent. Only one side of her face was visible.
Nakpodia tucked new blankets around the silent woman. She left food and socks beneath an orange-shopping basket packed with bags, spray bottles and an umbrella.
It was the pastor’s second stop this week to see the woman. She had followed through on her promise to bring the woman, who previously had no shoes, size 9-and-a-half sneakers.
“May God bless you,” Nakpodia said, as she held her palms above the half-hidden woman. “And help you when you can’t see a way.”
The pastor was undeterred by vehicles that zipped past her barely 5 feet away as she prayed for the woman.
Behind a nearby wooden fence, Miguel Valle, 20, sat on the curb outside of a Motel 6, wrapped in a Spider-Man blanket. He was waiting for his wife to arrive with their car, in which they have lived for eight months with her two sons, 3 and 5. He said they have a baby on the way. His eyes filled with tears when Nakpodia surprised him with a care package.
“I see it as a blessing,” Valle said, as he clutched the red and blue cartoon blanket tighter around his shoulders. “It warms my heart.”
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As Nakpodia prepared to return to her East Side church, two men from the homeless community walked by the truck. She asked them if they were in need of some food and a blanket.
One man, who said his name was C.B., said yes. She reached in the bed of the truck and filled their arms with socks, bags of food and blankets. The man called C.B. said he was a 58-year-old Army veteran who is getting back on his feet, leaning on faith.
He said Nakpodia’s gift was ordained from on high.
“She already knew what to do,” he said. “It gives me joy. It’s love.”