His gait is uneven and his steps deliberate as if trying to minimize the pain he is in. Yet, a huge smile stretches across his face as he takes his seat for lunch at the Bethlehem Center. Merced welcomes me to sit next to him.

“I am so grateful for this place. I eat both breakfast and lunch here and they take good care of you; treat you like a person when so many don’t. I never understood what it was like to be homeless, never understood how someone could be homeless until I got sick and lost my job,” Merced recalls between mouthfuls of chicken and rice. “Living like this is hard because I never wanted to disappoint my mother and being homeless would hurt her so much. So instead I try to show the kindness and love she showed me to others. I may be homeless, but it doesn’t mean I don’t have compassion and empathy for my fellow man.”

Indeed, compassion and giving was the essence of the November 2 Breaking Bread Gala, a fundraiser to support the Bethlehem Center. Held at the Visalia Country Club, the event hosted hundreds of people who wanted to help the area’s economically disadvantaged and homeless. Their mission: providing free clothing to those in need, serving more than 100,000 free hot meals a year, dispensing food boxes to families, distributing backpacks to school children, and hygiene packets to those living on the streets; and as such, the Bethlehem Center acts as a vital part of the community which helps to uplift those in need.

“The Bethlehem Center is unique, as no one in need is turned away no matter their faith or circumstances. Everyone who comes is welcome. We are a part of a long link of organizations and businesses (Starbucks, Winco, Ruiz Foods, and local restaurants) that proudly serve citizens of this city everyday,” commented Bethlehem board member Daryn Davis.

The theme of this year’s annual event paid homage to everything British. With Beefeaters greeting guests, the Union Jack flying high, and several 007 agents in attendance, guests felt as if they were whisked away to London, England. And just as tourists snap pictures in front of the Commonwealth’s famous bright red telephone booths, souvenir pictures were taken inside of attendees beside life-sized replicates of the much-loved icons of British life. Meanwhile, an informational slide show presentation informed all about the different programs provided by the Bethlehem Center. Major sponsors of the evening included California Water Service Company, Provident Salierno Foundation, and JC Lansdowne, Inc.

Outside, guests mingled on the deck by the open bar while bagpiper Iain Fisher piped traditional Scottish faire on the green below. Conversation was lively as groups posed with a life-sized image of her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and sampled a variety of traditional British Isle hors d’oeuvres.

Soon guests were called to a lavish British sit-down dinner as singer Jamie Hitchcock rolled through many Sinatra favorites. Mary T. Hill — queen of the event, dressed in an ermine cape and holding a scepter –addressed the crowd reminding all involved that the Bethlehem Center, “welcomes the hungry, the cold, and the poor who are in need of warmth and a smile.”

Monsignor Ray Dreiling led the dinner prayer imploring attendees to pray for the homeless and for those living on the streets. “We are here tonight and the poor are still needing to be fed,” he said, thanking all involved for their support and the good work done on behalf of the Bethlehem Center.

Attendee Rita Perez, who prepares meals for the Center clients, was glad to see such a large crowd supporting the event because, “there are so many out on the streets that need our help. I consider them all to be my kids. I think we all do.” And Father John Griesbach explained, “The gala allows individuals in this community to do something tangible to help those families who are falling through the cracks through no fault of their own.”

For organizers Mark and Maureen Fisher, the gala has become more than an annual event — it has become a calling. As Mark explained, “When we became involved with The Good News Center (now the Bethlehem Center) it was losing money and a group of individuals and churches got together and made a commitment that this place would not be closed down no matter what. With so many demands for services on the place, what we quickly realized was that a big fundraiser would be needed to make the center work. This evening is our fifth and we have learned a lot over the years making this gala bigger and better than ever.”

After dinner bids came fast and furious for numerous prestigious auction items, including the Priest Dinner donated by David Vartanian of The Vintage Press, a Cigar Night, and a hotel and dinner package in Las Vegas to see superstar Cher. The auction alone raised $68,000.

According to co-chair Kathleen Remillard, this year’s event was the most successful yet. “We raised over $200,000 that is going to the general fund. I want readers to know that this is an ecumenical effort in which many churches, individuals of differing faiths and businesses contribute so much of themselves to make the Bethlehem Center a place the poor can rely on for so many basic necessities of life,” said Remillard.

But for Merced as well as all of the attendees, what matters above all is showing kindness and concern while providing hope for others in whatever way they can.

“Someday, I’ll be back on my feet and I will be able to give to others again just like the folks at the Bethlehem Center. If everyone could just plant a little seed of kindness and love we could feed the world,” reflected Merced.

I think all involved with the Bethlehem Center and the fundraiser would whole-heartedly agree.

Photos by Andrea Camarena