My former Professor Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook once said to me that after reading Dr. James Cone I was now turning into a tree hugger. There are many experiences in my life that have informed who I am and where my ministry has taken me. Over the past four years it has been in the area of food insecurity in the West Cambridge. Somerville area. Located in the heart of some of the priciest and hottest real estate market are pockets of food deserts as people juggle paying rent, paying for medication, providing for one’s children and buying food. My parish in Somerville had been connected to a food pantry, which is located in West Cambridge. Recently, I found out that the three day a week pantry beginning in February is only going to operate once a month and will remove all current volunteers. I am saddened and appalled. Let me share a few of the stories of the people who have been served by the pantry, some of them current food pantry volunteers.
Mr. and Mrs. M come to the pantry once a month. He was recently diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and Mrs. C does not drive. The volunteers at the pantry were present when Mr. C said his taste in food had changed due to his chemo treatment and the he now craved the small juice boxes that the pantry provided. The volunteers filled a plastic bag with juice boxes. To make matters worse their only son had just been arrested for attempted murder. The volunteers heard their heartbreak and have included them in our daily prayers.
Ms. E., is now raising her 5 grandchildren and money is tight. If Ms. E. had not stepped up to take the children they were going to be placed with the State. Money is tight so she relies on the pantry to make ends meet.
O’s husband made $36 over the threshold for food stamps. The family of three food stamps were cut to $11 for the month. Volunteering at the pantry gives her both dignity and provides food for her family. You cannot feed a family of three on $11 a month.
P’s son suffered brain damage from a skiing accident. She has had to leave her job to take care of him full time. P’s son wants to be of service so they come to the pantry once a month to volunteer.
G’s apartment had a fire and she lost everything last year. The volunteers at the pantry asked her what she needed and provided some household goods when she moved into her new place. Her friend A monthly bakes the best anise cookies in the world for the volunteers.
Y has the most amazing organizational skills that one can find, and can keep all the food pantry volunteers on task.
Mrs. A takes a train and two buses to pick up food for herself and her neighbor who is housebound. Two years ago her husband passed and the pantry provided a safe space for her to cry and grieve.
Mr. W has diabetes and the volunteers knew to offer him alternatives when we had sweets.
A’s children all have a gluten allergy. Volunteers would put aside gluten free products.
K is a vegetarian so she gets double vegetables instead of meat.
There are many more food pantry stories that will break your heart and make your heart sing. The pantry not only provided food, but provided a place of prayer, rest, respite and laughter. The pantry was a place where one did not only sign people in, give them bags of food and then moved on to the next person. It was a community within a community. A community that prayed together, ate together, laughed together and cried together. Ms. E made the best chicken and beans and rice. Her door was always open and a heaping plate of food was always hot and ready. When her nephew dropped out of community college it took the food pantry volunteer village to convince him to return.
Getting to know people, really know people was the real work of the food pantry, recognizing their worth and dignity as a Child of God was in many ways more important than the food provided. Some of the volunteers were in need of food for their families and the pantry gave them a sense of giving back, a place where their skills could be appreciated and utilized. Current volunteers who will be dismissed next week by a casual thank you and a Whole Foods cake.
All of this is going away. The pantry will be a place where a person will wait outside in the cold winter months, in the rain, in the humid heat of the oppressive summer sun. They will be signed in, giving the identical packed plastic bags and sent on their way. We have lost our way as a church and as a community when we can sit in a place and perch of personal privilege to look down on those in need and only recognize them as a number in need. God help us all.