Corrie’s write-up of Monday night’s party/shelter meal

WHAT A PARTY!

An elderly gentleman dancing with two little girls as Jim spontaneously conducted the band. Ginny giving a little TLC to a frightened, newly homeless 19 year-old. Neighbors from the Lorraine pitching in, as well as in and out-of-town family and friends (from as far away as Colorado and France!). A fury of egg deviling, tomato slicing and mac n’cheese engineering on one side of the kitchen. Later on the other, a NYC-trained chef, at least 3 Harvard PhDs, and an experienced shelter meal cook and painter extraordinaire trying to keep up with demand as the irrepressible Emma and others delivered plates to some 85 guests from the shelter and off the street. (Expecting around 65, we got “slammed” as they say in the culinary world. But we got everybody well fed in the end.) And, a vision of heaven: two long tables filled with the most exquisite-looking pies imaginable (and tasting even better).

Actually, the whole thing was a vision of heaven or at least, what the Kingdom of God should look like: people from all walks of life coming together to make this thing we call “church” (a free translation of ekklesia could be “party”) happen: feeding as we are fed by God and by the neighbors we serve and with whom we share more in common than we sometimes realize. This is how grace—and Grace—happen.

There are so many to thank. Somewhere around 45 Grace members and community volunteers who at one point or another (and many throughout) helped with set up, cooking, clean up, hosting and serving. And even more of you were present via your donations for the meal. That support not only made this meal possible, but it has helped give some relief our very meager Shelter Meal budget. (Did you know that Sarah and Sparky make the monthly meal—often feeding 150 guests—with a budget of less than $250/month?) There was the vivid presence of our Sunday School children who, with Carrie Scherpelz’s help, made banners of themselves welcoming our guests (see them still in Guild Hall). As always Russ was indispensable and Sheila and Janet kept communication and accounting flowing smoothly. Special thanks to Deb Barber for the extra help with Second Harvest and for providing (along with many of you) all that lemonade. And to Greg and Stephen—who brought heaven out of a “hotter than…” kitchen in a pie shape—well, the swoons and smacks of delight on Monday evening said it all.

And we are so grateful and honored by the help of the following local artists/artisan, farmers, and restaurateurs:

  • Smoky Jon’s Barbecue, especially manager Joel who came in on his day off after the busiest weekend of the year to do the meat for us. Joel wanted to do it because he was once a shelter guest.
  • Tony and Julie Hook of Hook’s Cheese in Mineral Point who gave us a generous discount on their award-winning cheeses. And their neighbors Mike and Marcia Bingham of Bingham Horticulture who did the same for their beefsteak tomatoes.
  • And our musicians, some of whom play regularly at the Contra Dances held in this room: Hollie Benton, Roger Diggle, Michael Kuharski, Carol Ormand, and Gregg Sanford, who put the group together. And all present were charmed and inspired by their children Callie and Nellie, who presented a quart jar full of donations they had collected for the Shelter Meal. Before we could even write to thank them, they volunteered to do it again.

The party isn’t over. We are called to make it happen every month. Perhaps we can’t always do it this elaborately. (Or can we?) But we must do it this collaboratively. …

Volunteering at the Food Pantry

I volunteered at Grace’s Food Pantry for the first time today. It was quite interesting. I’ve not even spent much time in it before, although it has taken up its share of my time. We’ve been awarded three grants this year–from the diocese and the Madison Community Foundation. Most of the money will go to much-needed upgrades and replacement of our food storage capacity (new coolers, freezers, shelving).

I’ve certainly seen pantry guests frequently. They line up outside the pantry before hours; often they linger in our courtyard before and after receiving food, and occasionally seek me out to ask for financial assistance. But for the most part, I’ve not dealt directly with them. I suppose I had the typical assumptions about who makes use of pantries. And certainly there were what might be regarded as stereotypes. What surprised me more were the numbers of young people, single men and women, and some who had jobs. One man told me he was working now for the first time in a while, but he wouldn’t get his first pay check till Wednesday. We gave him things that he could take for lunch. There were others who had come back to the pantry for the first time in four or five years. I was curious about the turns their lives had taken to bring them back to this place.

One of the surprising things was how health-conscious many of our guests were. They wanted to know the salt content of processed foods. They asked for low-fat alternatives. They also were concerned that they not take things that they had in supply. If they had rice, they didn’t ask for more.

There were two ironies I noticed. First was the most obvious, that a few hundred feet away from us was the Dane County Farmer’s Market filled with fresh spring vegetables, meats, cheese and other local food products. We benefited from it this morning. A bakery shared left over scones with us. But that in the midst of all of that agricultural bounty, there are those who go hungry is sobering.

The second irony came from the church itself. We open our doors to the public on Saturday mornings. We invite people in to look at the space, to enjoy the beauty, to sense the sacred. It may be that someone who comes to the pantry might also visit the church. It’s happened once or twice, but usually only because they are new to the pantry and don’t know where to go.

We’ve been trying hard to make a connection between what we do liturgically with our eating and our hospitality. It’s a difficult connection for most people to make even though our central liturgical act, the Eucharist involves eating and drinking. We say we welcome everyone to our table; we talk about the sacred act of eating. We call ourselves a friendly and welcoming parish.

But the pantry reflects those values only very dimly. It is not a welcoming place. There are steps leading up to the door, making it difficult for the disabled and elderly to come in. The entrance itself is dingy, dark, and dirty, and once inside, people line up, as they usually do at social service agencies, taking a number, waiting in line.

Sara Miles in Take This Bread, describes a very different sort of pantry–where there is little distinction between volunteer and guest, with a joyous atmosphere and a marvelous meal for the volunteers, and where the food is distributed, not out of some side room or back door, but from the altar of the church’s sanctuary. That makes clear the connection between liturgy and outreach, the eucharistic feast and the feeding of the hungry.

I’m eager to find ways of making the pantry a more welcoming place, or to make the physical space correspond to the values and attitudes of the church and volunteers. I’m eager also to find ways of making connections between the Farmer’s Market and the pantry. And I hope to broaden the group of those who volunteer–to bring in young people, for example. The pantry should reflect our values as a community of God’s people. It is not a social service agency or branch of the federal government.

Take this Bread

Last week, I read Sara MilesTake this Bread. It is a memoir of her life leading up to her encounter with Christ in the Eucharist at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, her conversion and efforts to create a food pantry at that church. It’s a remarkable story, well-written and full of passion. I’m especially interested in how she created the food pantry and made it a place that did more than distribute food. In fact, the distribution of food takes place around the church’s altar and over time, she created eucharistic community among the volunteers (many of whom began as pantry guests) and among the larger group of guests as well.

Her work and life is not without controversy, however. She came to the church via open communion–the practice of extending the hospitality of the Eucharist to anyone, not just the baptized, and St. Gregory of Nyssa does not clearly distinguish lay and clerical roles in the Eucharist. Many Christians are uncomfortable with the former, and many ordained clergy are outraged by the latter practice.

I’m intrigued by much of what she writes about the hospitality we offer as churches and as Christians, and about the role food places in nurturing community and the sense of the sacred.

new data on foodstamp usage

There’s an article in the NY Times about the enormous increase in the usage of foodstamps. The numbers are startling. For Dane County, 7% of the population relies on food stamps; 15% of children; 51% of African Americans. In other counties I have lived: Greenville County, SC: 12% overall 24% of children; 31% of African Americans. In Elkhart County, IN usage has increased 75% since 2007. The article and the interactive map are here.

I’m reading Mark Winne’s Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty. Winne was for many years director of the Hartford Food System in Hartford, CT and describes the many problems associated with the attempts by non-profits to provide food for the food-insecure. I’ll have more to say about this later, but he is critical of the food pantry and food bank system on a number of grounds.

Grace has had a food pantry for thirty years. That’s an achievement, whether it deserves to be celebrated or not is another question. Certainly, we’ve fed a lot of people over those years. But it’s a bandaid, and the fact of the matter is that more people are food-insecure today than ever before, and as Winne and others point out, the food pantry system is constructed in such a way that it makes volunteers feel good, the nonprofits that serve the hungry feel good, and it gives the food producers that provide food for the pantries an outlet for product they don’t want. Winne argues that if all of that volunteer energy were directed toward solving the underlying issues of hunger and poverty, more progress would be made in the long run.