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.