The sound of a siren blares through the New York City streets. But this bright red vehicle isn’t responding to a fire or on its way to help someone with a broken leg. This truck is responding to a different kind of emergency.
The "Hungry Monk Rescue Truck," as it's called, is packed full of food to be handed out to hungry people at one of two feeding sites in the city. On this chilly Saturday in mid-January, people are already lined up waiting in the small square in Queens.
Father Mike Lopez, a priest in Ridgewood, told InsideEdition.com he started the Hungry Monk Rescue Truck two years ago after he was approached by a few local people in need who confused him with another priest who served in the area.
“I was walking down the street in my habit and they saw me and yelled out for me and said, ‘Hey, we’re hungry,’ and I thought it a miracle from God,” said Lopez. “I said, ‘Whoa, these guys are hungry, they know my name, this must be like something set up from heaven.’”
So he bought them sandwiches and coffee, and started talking with them.
The conversation fueled a weekly sandwich outreach program, which turned into a soup kitchen initiative, and eventually led to the mobile outreach truck.
The truck is a community response vehicle run by 18 volunteers who take donated meals and groceries out to the streets each week. They assemble fresh fruit, vegetables and bread into individual shopping bags, and hand them out to anyone who wants it.
The rescue truck often serves up to 70 families a week, providing them with the ingredients they need to cook their own fresh meals.
“We have found that certain people were afraid or ashamed of coming into the soup kitchen at the church or coming for our weekly meals, they felt embarrassed,” said Lopez. “Having the truck made us accessible to them in a different way.”
The truck stops at two feeding spots, in Ridgewood, Queens, and in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
Lopez makes sure his fellow volunteers understand just how important it is to engage their partners on the street.
“When we go out into the community, let them know that you’re not afraid of them, let them know that they’re welcome, say good morning to them,” Lopez said of the advice he doles out. “Don’t be afraid to shake their hands and ask them how we can serve them.”
Some regulars have become like family to the Hungry Monk crew.
“Once you meet the people and you start hanging out with them, you fall in love with them and you go home with them in your head and your heart and you just can’t stop,” volunteer Marianne Melchiori said.
“I think you get kind of connected to the people you’re volunteering with and also the ... people that you see repeatedly and you think about them through the week and think, 'I hope they’re OK. It’s really cold out,'” volunteer Mary Houlihan added.
This past November, they experienced the loss of Arek Jasinski, 44, a man who visited the truck for years. Jasinski froze to death during a snowstorm in Queens, according to Lopez.
“Arek was always vigilant of the truck. I don’t know how he saw us, but he always saw us,” Lopez said. “He always was one of the guys standing by the truck, waiting for me and looking for me.”
“He’s the first person I encountered in this work on the first day that I was coming here and he was just a special guy to me,” said Melchiori.
While his faith helps him cope with loss, the truck and the work it does, Lopez said, is about more than faith.
“People say to me, ‘Well, you do this because you’re a priest right?’” said Lopez. “And my response is, ‘No, I don’t do this because I’m a priest, I do this because I’m a human being and I see that there are people in need.’”
Lopez, of course, wishes he was equipped to do more but he said he chooses to focus on what his team can do with the resources they have.
“I want more trucks, I want a better truck, I want a shower truck, I want every city in this country to have a Hungry Monk outreach team,” said Lopez. “But I think right now it’s most important to focus here, 5 feet in front of us.”