One of 9 Unsung Heroes

St. James Food Pantry’s Jesse Martínez named a 2018 'Unsung Hero'

Feeding stomachs and souls

By Mary Beth Libbey
Posted 10/12/18

Jesse Martínez's dark eyes lock on yours when he greets you at the church door. He seems to study your words carefully. Then someone yells for him from across the room. He gestures to you …

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One of 9 Unsung Heroes

St. James Food Pantry’s Jesse Martínez named a 2018 'Unsung Hero'

Feeding stomachs and souls


Jesse Martínez's dark eyes lock on yours when he greets you at the church door. He seems to study your words carefully. Then someone yells for him from across the room. He gestures to you to follow. He answers their question, gives a direction, exchanges some teasing words with a smile. Then he shuffles on.

Martínez is a balding, middle-aged man in a T-shirt, baggy shorts and athletic shoes. His shoulders hunch a bit, and his gait slow due to one leg that’s in a brace.

Martínez is the kind of guy you'd pass on the street or in the grocery store and not even notice. Nothing remarkable stands out about this man. That is, until you talk to the people who work with him at St. James Episcopal Church food pantry.

“What he does, he does out of love — for God and for his fellow man,” said Marilyn Farrow, the volunteer director of the food pantry. “His treatment of our volunteers is noteworthy — lots of the young adults who work with him stay in touch with him for years. He respects them, talks with them and prays with them.”

He can't tell you when he started working at the food pantry. He can't tell you when he started to go to church at St. James either. His friends in the congregation say it was about 14 years ago, only a few months after Farrow took on the top job.

"I'm not good with time, with dates," he said.

Indeed, certain areas of life have been difficult for Martínez.  He had a loving home in Des Montes, he said, with his grandparents, Atilono and Maclovia Roybal and his parents Damacio and Presciliana Martínez. Sometimes, he said, families hide a “different child in a corner.” His family didn’t do that. 

And they taught him “respect for elders.” He stopped the interview and said, “One thing I want to say in the article. Young parents need to teach their children respect for their elders. It’s getting out of hand. You see them pushing an elderly person instead of picking them up.”

But he said he struggled in school at times, and he was put in special education classes at other times. He didn’t learn like other kids. He moved awkwardly and fell down sometimes. 

He was teased and it hurt. Kids took advantage of him and his grandma would scold him for being so naïve.

“She would say, ‘They are mean to you, but you still give them your jacket,’ ” Martinez remembered. “You deal with it. You learn from it.”

In fact, he speculated, that experience may be why he finds it easy to accept others and has long acted on his faith’s teachings that one should help others when they are in trouble, especially those who are different. “I’m disabled, too,” he said simply. 

Still, he’s held down all types of jobs. He was a supervisor at the Molycorp mine in Questa and a caretaker at El Mirador. 

Nevertheless, giving to others has long been an integral part of Martínez’s life.

Before St. James, Martínez and his wife Elvira started a food pantry in their house in Arroyo Seco. His reason: "People needed it." 

He can't tell you how people learned to stop by his house for food or how he got the food to give out. No marketing plan was needed.

Martínez said that retailers and food distributors seemed to just know about his home-based effort. "They just showed up: Smith's, Creamland, Taos Farms eggs," he recalled.

Then a friend, a member of St. James, told him about the church's food pantry, and he signed on about a year after he closed their homegrown pantry.

Today, he’s the St. James pantry’s produce manager, but it’s clear that he does much more than that: answering questions, directing the set-up, checking to see if lunch is on the stove. It’s tough to see how this complex operation would work without him. “He’s my right hand man,” said Farrow. 

They serve an estimated 500 families each Thursday, distributing about 1,500 pounds of food, “much of it the produce that Jesse so beautifully manages,” said Farrow.  The day starts at 8 a.m. The church's ample narthex is stacked with tables that in turn are stacked with pallets of canned and dry goods, sometimes meat, always potatoes and other fruit and vegetables. This particular day, boxes of watermelon are stacked in the parking lot. 

People have already started to show up, chatting under the portal. Just before noon, the kitchen crew, volunteers, including Elvira Martínez, serve a hot lunch for the 70 or so volunteers who show up every Thursday to help out Jesse and the rest of the St. James crew.

Most of the volunteers are not church members. Among them are people who once stood in line regularly outside, convicted offenders working off some community service, residents at a local drug rehab facility, the Rocky Mountain Youth Corp., schoolchildren and many people looking for some social interaction.

"People come here to get out of their own heads, to get out of the house. You can spend too much time alone,” said one volunteer eating her enchilada lunch. “It’s not good.”

The doors open at noon and stay open until the food is gone, usually several hours. Then, Jesse and Elvira Martínez deliver food to others in the community if there is anything left. He'll stop his pickup at the Pueblo, at the McDonald’s parking lot, at the post office, and then he'll take a box to individual homes. That’s why Martínez was nominated as an “Unsung Hero” by Stella McGinnis who saw him around town, said Farrow. “She was impressed with his kindness and courtesy.”

Sometimes the Martínez's day does not end until 10 p.m. 

But Jesse Martínez said over the years he has been sought out at the church for other reasons, not only food. "Sometimes people want to pray with me," he said. "They trust me."

It's not hard to understand why. When he found out about this reporter's daughter was having surgery soon in Albuquerque, he asked her to pray with him. He reached out, held her hands and said a simple prayer at the end of the interview.

Some might say my journalism ethics were compromised, or that my religious beliefs were not being honored because he didn’t ask me what they were, but it didn't feel that way. It was part of Jesse Martínez's work, part of his day, part of his faith.


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