Second helping: Betty Chinn serves the poor

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Article Social Justice
With a new lease on life and a blue truck, Betty Chinn delivers hope to those in need.

The day after Christmas Betty Chinn was up before dawn. After washing up and saying the rosary she headed downstairs, got her 200-cup coffee-maker going, and checked her voice mail. An oncologist needed to set up daily food delivery for two patients. Chinn made a mental note of the address while taking a mountain of socks out of the dryer.

It'd been a rainy Christmas; she knew there'd be a lot of people needing dry socks today. She checked if she had enough fruit and day-old pastries for the morning deliveries. She made and wrapped a couple hundred peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and ate breakfast. When the coffee was done, she loaded up her catering truck and headed out.

The rain had turned to a fine mist by the time she reached her 11th stop, a small homeless encampment on the outskirts of Eureka, California. She followed a muddy path through a thicket of berry vines that led into the woods. Spying a leaf on the ground that the rain had washed clean she knelt down, transfixed, and put it in her mouth. For an instant she was a homeless and starving 7-year-old again.

"I'm not there, I'm here. I'm here to do God's work," she repeated, shaking off the flashback. Chinn stood up, picked up her grocery bag, and continued on her way.

Childhood Shattered

Chinn doesn't have a birth certificate, but she believes she was born in 1960 in the Guangdong Province of southern China. She was the eighth child of a wealthy family. Her father was a dentist educated in the West and her mother a doctor and a Christian. Most of her siblings were much older than she was. She and her younger sister had their own teacher and learned to read at an early age.

In 1966 Mao Zedong's Red Guards began the Cultural Revolution, purging the country of anyone with suspicious "bourgeois" connections. Chinn's parents had been quietly sending their children one by one to Hong Kong and then on to school in England or the United States. Chinn's father was in Hong Kong making arrangements for the rest of the family to flee when the Red Guards came.

Early one morning rifle-waving students in uniforms broke into their home and began shouting orders, dragging the family into the street. Chinn watched as an older brother and his wife were shot by a firing squad.

The rest of her siblings, one carrying her little sister, were taken to a labor camp in the north. Her mother was taken to a prison far away. They put a sign around Chinn's neck that read "Child of the Devil" as a warning to all that she was to be treated as a pariah.

The Red Guards made her family compound their headquarters, while Chinn scrounged what she could from the garbage dump and drank water from the river. "Every food I put in my mouth was rotten and sour," she says.

Her hair turned light because of a vitamin deficiency. On cold nights she buried herself in refuse. Each growing season she was taken to a camp to haul buckets of water to the fields.

Many times she was tortured all day, forced to sit on her hands, cross-legged in the sand, her head bowed. "If anytime I move my body . . . lean up or want to lie down . . . they would put a rope on my neck . . . So if I moved, someone behind there would pull the rope [and] choke my throat."

Human Animal

One night Chinn woke to a voice that she hadn't heard in four years. Her sister's hand pressed down on her mouth. "My sister grabbed me in the middle of the night and said, ‘Let's get out of here,' " she says

They joined her two brothers waiting for them on the road and headed to Hong Kong. They hid from the guards each day and walked each night. When they reached Hau Hoi Bay, Chinn remembers clinging to a floating limb as her siblings pulled her across to freedom.

But reuniting with her father didn't do away with Chinn's problems, she says. "I refuse to sleep on the bed, [my father] see me eat garbage. People stare at me . . . I still cannot eat anything. My father gave me some condensed milk-I ended up in the hospital." Soon after her hospitalization, Chinn's father was diagnosed with cancer, and a few months later he died.

At 14 Chinn traveled to San Francisco to join relatives in Chinatown, but she was always afraid that "someone was going to come out of a doorway and grab me," she says. So her sister Fay's family invited her to Seattle, even though Fay recalled Chinn seemed like a "human animal."

Chinn began to learn English by watching Sesame Street. Her favorite character was Oscar the Grouch because he lived in a garbage can.

Chinn felt like a package getting passed around. "[I didn't] feel a sense of belonging," she says.

Her family arranged a marriage for her to a young friend of the family, Leung Chinn. The couple married and moved to Eureka, where Leung taught physics at nearby Humboldt State University. "He [didn't] speak Chinese. I [didn't] speak English. First two years we didn't talk much."

Finding Community

The Chinns had two sons. When their oldest, Stuart, entered school, Betty walked him there and back every day. During recess the teachers noticed she and her younger son hovered around the fence of the playground. "I [went] to school [to] watch my kid, ‘cause I didn't want someone [to] hurt my kid," she says.

When Stuart's teacher invited her to come into the classroom as a volunteer, Chinn was apprehensive. She'd never been in a classroom. She didn't speak English very well. But slowly, as she felt accepted, her confidence grew. Her natural exuberance began to emerge.

Lisa Bethune, who taught fourth grade at Stuart's school during the '90s, says that Chinn's energy was contagious: "She just had that gift of making every single person feel so special. She was [employed as] a yard duty monitor, but she'd be there eight hours a day, helping with P.T.A. and track."

One recess, a little girl approached Chinn on the playground and said she was hungry. When Chinn found out the girl's family was living in a car, she began to bring them food, beginning her outreach to the homeless.

A Watershed

For more than 15 years Chinn quietly sought out the homeless. She handed out sandwiches and coffee from her van twice a day. But in 2004 a group of local merchants decided to shut her down. They threatened to file a public nuisance lawsuit against her and turn her in for health code violations. The police began to harass her.

Chinn always found it hard to tell others what she was doing, but in this situation she was desperate, so she turned to the St. Vincent de Paul Council and her longtime friend, Russ Shaddix, who let her serve food from their dining room's parking lot, though Chinn still hadn't met the city's health code requirements.

Shaddix began researching different types of catering trucks and found a good match for Chinn's operation. "The money came in just by word-of-mouth," Shaddix says. "Within a year or two we had close to $40,000, so we ordered the truck."

In September 2006 a christening was held in the parking lot of Chinn's parish, Sacred Heart Church. A gleaming, midnight-blue catering truck was blessed and named "Betty's Blue Angel."

Middleman

When Chinn works with volunteers making sandwiches or sorting clothes, she knows they are all working on God's team. When someone drops off a case of jelly at her doorstep or she picks up unserved food at the hospital, she doesn't worry about paying for it. She knows the gift isn't for her; it's for God. She says she feels free knowing that.

This shines through in Chinn's smile. Local residents are becoming familiar with that smile because of articles and newscasts that mention her. In 2008 she won the Women's Conference Minerva Award, created to honor extraordinary women. She donated her prize money to the St. Vincent de Paul Society. As they learn more about her work, many want to get involved.

One local coffee shop raises money selling Betty's Blend. Schools sponsor penny drives that benefit her ministry. A local thrift store sends extra clothes her way. Grocery stores send perishables such as meat and bread. Businesses help with bus tickets, phone cards, and storage space. Churches make their freezers, kitchens, and dumpsters available for her use. Some materials were donated to build a shower and laundry facility onto St. Vincent's dining room this year.

A local casino gave her $9,000 worth of grocery gift cards. A local foundation provided backpacks and new outfits for 250 homeless children. Last Christmas, Chinn had a toy for every child she serves thanks to the U.S. Coast Guard and Marines.

Chinn inspires many to do more for God, including her parish priest, Father Ismael Mora. "She is not a young woman, and she has a lot of energy and a lot of courage, too-courage to reach out to those who have been in many ways forsaken, ostracized, or rejected," he says.

"This is God's work," Chinn says. "I'm just the middleman. [I feel] a lot of healing seeing the community get involved [though]. When I was alone, nobody want[ed] to come to help, but now I have a community. . . . I don't want [homeless] people [to be] in isolation, and I don't want myself in isolation either." 

This article appeared in the June 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75, No. 6, pages 35-37).

Image: Photo Courtesy of Betty Chinn