A Maine community celebration for equal rights

By Ramona du Houx

May 23, 2010

Maine, there is no other state like it.

15c1a4991f4a9cba-SPAGDINNERGov. John Baldacci serves his spaghetti, from a traditional family recipe, to over eight hundred people, to help the homeless. Photo by Ramona du Houx

Often when people in Maine see an injustice, they overwhelmingly respond by taking positive action. And that’s exactly what their governor, John Baldacci, did. In April he held a spaghetti dinner for Preble Street Resource Center, and the people of Maine responded in droves, with over 900 people attending the function.

The line outside the Italian Heritage Center just kept getting longer, as people patiently waited for plates of spaghetti covered in a true Italian sauce that had been used in the governor’s family restaurant businesses, Baldacci’s, for three generations. At one point, the line stretched all around the parking lot with more than 400 people.

“It’s delicious,” said four-year-old Gianna Smith, liking her lips from the sauce.

A very diverse community turned out. The atmosphere was one of celebration and unity. A band played, and people danced carefree, as the governor and volunteers served for three hours.

Ed Bushey, a longtime friend of the governor, was in charge of the kitchen operations. Over 70 gallons of sauce and 103 pounds of spaghetti were prepared. The governor had been preparing the secret sauce at the Blaine House over the previous weekend.

“The event was fantastic and shows how much people care about this issue, and their community,” said local state Rep. Ann Haskell.

Volunteer Sylvia Murray-Beliveau said, “This a wonderful opportunity to help Preble Street; they need the money. Everyone has come together to support the cause. It’s thrilling to be a part of it.”

“We’re here in support,” said Jack and Kate Brogon, who brought her Ethiopian adopted son to the celebration. “I thought what the church did, wasn’t Christian.”

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland and the Washington-based Catholic Campaign for Human Development withdrew funding from Preble Street, saying that the social services agency violated its grant agreement by supporting Maine’s “No on 1″ campaign last fall.

Within weeks of last November’s repeal of the civil rights law in favor of same-sex marriage , Catholic Charities of Maine and the national Catholic Campaign for Human Justice notified Preble Street that they were yanking their annual funding for Homeless Voices for Justice.

At the same time, the two organizations demanded the return of any unspent money.

That cost the program $17,400 this year and $33,000 next year.

“We’ve been a supporter for Homeless Voices For Justice since it’s inception in 1993. During that time we were funded by the CCHJ. We’ve always been very transparent with our activities. It was a total shock,” said Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street. “To tell us what we can or can’t advocate goes against what we do. How could we continue to give a voice to people who don’t have a voice, if we were silenced?”

Withdrawing funds meant hundreds of runaway teens would be placed in danger living on the streets.

“Half of the runaway kids that come to our center are there because of sexual identity. They weren’t welcome in their homes. They were in abusive situations in their own homes, neighborhoods, and communities. They needed a safe place to go, with anonymity, with specific services, and the safety of nonjudgmental people — people who care about them,” said Swann. “They are the reason we took this stance in the first place. It’s about human rights.”

Governor Baldacci, a Catholic, supported “No on 1” and saw it as a civil rights issue. His spaghetti dinner brought in over $16,000.

“This new law does not force any religion to recognize a marriage that falls outside of its beliefs. It does not require the church to perform any ceremony with which it disagrees,” Baldacci said after signing the law. “Instead, it reaffirms the separation of church and state.”

Since the news hit of the Church’s stance, $40,000 in donations has poured in for Homeless Voices for Justice, which advocates for the needs of the homeless statewide.

The day the news broke, the governor called Preble Street, offering support, and his spaghetti dinner took shape. At the same time, Swann was straight-out working to open Florence House, a new Portland based comprehensive shelter, specifically for homeless women.

“He [Baldacci] said, ‘I want to do this.’ He knew we were busy opening Florence House, so he told me not to worry about anything, that he would take care of the flowers, tables, volunteers — everything. And he has, it’s been great,” said Swann. “Twenty-four hours after the word of the spaghetti fundraiser went out, we already had 400 RSVPs. We were a little overwhelmed by the emotion, energy and support. People really have given us a positive message, and we’re very appreciative.”

Frank De Sarro said, “I chose to withhold my weekly contributions to the church. I kept it in escrow; tonight I wrote the check to Preble Street from those funds, for $500.”

Events like the spaghetti supper are also important to Preble Street to help them educate people on homeless issues.

“Advocacy, is a big part of what we do,” said Swann.

And what they do for the state is why the turnout of over 900 people was so great.

“I couldn’t have made it without Preble Street,” said Marcia Frank, of Homeless Voices For Justice, who had been homeless for a year. “I didn’t accept I was a homeless person for six months. I’m working now, so people understand that the homeless are real people.”

Governor Baldacci has the distinction of being the only governor who held spaghetti fundraisers, with the help of his family owned restaurant, to meet people, while being a US Representative, for his campaigns, and for worthy causes.

Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street helps serve spaghetti made from a secret recipe.