When Jaira Koh ’17 came to Pomona College four years ago, he came to the United States from Singapore in search of both academic and spiritual knowledge. Koh wanted to get to know what this foreign country was all about and throughout this journey, he was guided by his Christian faith.
Through the Pomona-Pitzer Christian Fellowship, Koh joined a handful of dedicated students every Sunday to the neighboring city of Pomona to distribute about 50 meals to a congregation of mostly homeless men and some women who make the outdoor area between Pomona’s City Hall building and Pomona Public Library their home.
The program, dubbed Homeless Lunches, has a two-fold goal: feed the hungry and spark conversations. Koh was drawn to the simple yet intimidating premise by his own sense of wanting to do more, to be more compassionate, and to try to understand why so many people in this rich and plentiful country are homeless and hungry.
“Poverty in Singapore is very different than in the U.S., it doesn’t take the form of homelessness like it does here,” says Koh and explains that in Singapore, elderly individuals and immigrant laborers live in poverty but are out of sight. “I thought to myself that if I was studying abroad in a foreign country, I really wanted understand this country.”
“Classes tend to be theory heavy,” says the media studies major but explains that he found alignment between his classroom lectures and what he was seeing and hearing from the people he was meeting on the street.
The stories of hardship, incarceration and homelessness that one man shared with Koh resonated deeply and he saw the connections to the stuff he’d been reading in class about the prison industrial complex system, race theory and their intersections.
“I think, outside of classes and going to talks, Homeless Lunches is my one real venue or outlet for actually practicing any kind of justice work. The work is not policy or organizing, it’s just humanizing.”
“Sometimes, school stress can take a very unhealthy and disproportionately oversized quality. Talking to people who are removed from this place, it puts your school worries into perspective.”
When Koh first got involved with Homeless Lunches, he was unsure about what to expect. For the most part, he says that the people he’s met in downtown Pomona are more than happy to have someone willing to listen to their stories – as Koh explains, homeless people on the street are often ignored and shunned.
“A lot of times with Homeless Lunches is that if you sit down and talk to someone, people will just talk. A lot of the time it’s about listening and asking a follow-up question, but mostly it’s just listening,” he says.
And Koh is happy to listen. Prior to coming to college, Koh says that his experience with Christianity was insular and inward looking. Reading the Bible and what it had to say about poverty and exploitation, Koh’s desire to engage more deeply meant simply that he needed to show up. Show up to Pomona’s City Hall, show up to Homeless Lunches, show up to listen to a homeless man’s conversation.
Now, with nearly three years of visiting downtown Pomona, Koh has become familiar with the area and with the people there. “The space of City Hall, the routine of going every Sunday, it’s very familiar in a lot of ways. I have familiar faces that I know. City Hall feels like a familiar place in the U.S. for me. That feeling is one that stood out as different.”
A special moment that stands out for Koh is that after nearly two years of sitting down with one man he'd gotten to know, something shifted in their relationship. “One week I asked him how he was doing and he was going on for a while. Then he just stopped and looked at me and he said, ‘We always talk about me, what’s going on with your life?’ The relationship shifted when the conversation shifted.”
Koh reflects on what he’s learned through the Fellowship’s Homeless Lunches, “The sense of the U.S. that I’ve gotten over the past few years is that the reality is that you’re going encounter homeless folk on a regular basis: just walking around Los Angeles, walking in the Claremont Village or exploring the city of Pomona,” he says.
Although he’s not sure what the future brings long-term, a career as a college chaplain appeals to Koh.
With graduation around the corner for Koh, he’s planning on staying around to intern with the Pomona-Pitzer Christian Fellowship to help with Homeless Lunches next year even as he hopes to become more deeply involved with other organizations in the local area serving homeless people.
“Homeless Lunches is a Sunday thing, but it changes your interactions. It makes you notice that people are there when you would normally shut them out. It changes you and it becomes a lot harder to compartmentalize people.”