More than 80 people lined up for food one morning last week in the parking lot of the South Coast Christian Church in Costa Mesa.
From the back of his truck, adorned with a sign reading "Brother Michael's Mission," Michael C. Dwaileebe distributed free food packages.
Dwaileebe, 77, is not an ordained minister. "I'm just a brother with a small 'b,' " he said. The former real estate developer said he "owned half of Costa Mesa and tried to steal the other half" before he started his mission in 1959. Since then, working six days week, he has seen his mission grow so that he is now distributing what he estimates to be 70,000 pounds of food and household goods a month to the needy.
To the hungry people he feeds, Dwaileebe is almost a saint.
"In my entire life I've never met a person like him," said Irma Gonzalez, one of several volunteers who helps Dwaileebe collect food. "He's been teaching us a lot to help each other and to love other people."
Jean Forbath, executive director of the Costa Mesa-based relief organization Share Our Selves, who has known Dwaileebe for 10 years, said he consistently brings enthusiasm to his work with the needy.
"It's not a pleasant thing to work with the poor. But he doesn't let it rub off on him or let him down," Forbath said. "Brother Michael is always joyful. It's very contagious."
Normally at this time of year, Dwaileebe said he would get ready to supplement each food package with a Thanksgiving turkey. This holiday season, he has none to give out.
Because he has had to move his distribution point twice in the last two years, Dwaileebe said, "our old donors don't know where we are. I just trust in the Lord and the people. As soon as they know where we're at, I'm sure they'll send them in by the dozen."
Dwaileebe distributes food donated from local markets or purchased from the Food Distribution Center, a food bank run by the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Orange. He said 80 to 100 needy families line up for food at the church each weekday morning and 125 to 150 families on Saturday.
Many From Santa Ana
About 80% of the families are helped by the mission are Latino, he said. Many families come from Santa Ana.
He smiled when he talked about the birth of his mission and its growth since the mid-1960s, when he gave boxes of groceries to five families each weekday.
Dwaileebe said he left real estate when he became a Christian in 1959. "The Bible said sell all you have and give it to the poor. I did it and I believe it," he said. "I sold everything. All I kept was one lot to bury myself in."
Now Dwaileebe paints houses to support his work. He runs the mission from a one-room apartment in Costa Mesa, where he has lived the last five years. "Every dollar I earn buys food for the mission," he said, eyes bright behind paint-speckled glasses taped at the joints.
Volunteers help Dwaileebe fill his five-ton truck twice a week with food purchased at the food bank, where he spends $2,600 a monthly. About half of the funds are raised from donations; the other half he earns painting, he said. "I can get vegetables and fruit for 2 a pound and everything else for 8 a pound."
20,000 Pounds of Bananas
Last month, Dwaileebe said he bought 20,000 pounds of bananas at the Food Distribution Center and gave them out in a single day while driving through Santa Ana.
He does not limit his mission's efforts to food. Two months ago, he purchased bulk panty hose, which were selling by the pound. He bought 2,000 pounds of them.
"They're still wearing those stockings, if you look," he said, pointing to women standing in line for food in the church parking lot.
Dwaileebe stops there mornings, Monday through Saturday. Before he distributes the food, he leads the people in prayer.
On this day the food packages each contained a 10-pound box of burritos, five loaves of bread, two bags of corn chips, fruits and vegetables, candy, soap and detergent and dusting rags.
An impish personality often peeks out from behind Dwaileebe's gruff exterior while he's directing the food distribution.
As pigeons descend on the parking lot, searching for scraps, he said, "There's God's cleanup squad. The work they do is good, but I don't like the thank-you notes they leave behind."
Spying someone eating an apple, Dwaileebe shouted angrily, "Did you pay for that?" The man replied: "Yeah. I prayed to God today." Dwaileebe laughed and responded, "Well, you got me there."
Dwaileebe said he has suffered 12 heart attacks during the last five years, one while distributing food from his truck. However, he continues to paint six days a week and bustles around the parking lot directing the food distribution like a traffic cop.
Friends said the heart attacks have not diminished his energy. Pointing to the light-brown church, which Dwaileebe had recently painted, Paul Rhodes, groundskeeper for the church, said, "He went up and down that ladder like a monkey."
As he watched the people sweep the parking lot clean after the food was distributed, Dwaileebe said his job was easy.
"It's the easiest job in the world. Just because I love the people and they love me, there's no way I could call this work."