When Spero Project asked me to consider opening a Food Pantry with food that they would donate to us, I felt overwhelmed—both in a good and a bad way. Of course! I would love to open a food pantry!
So far, providing food for people in the neighborhood has been an adventure of faith. We have had no regular source of food. John and I have delivered to needy homes groceries that have been purchased out of the offerings people give on Sunday mornings. Sometimes, a north-side follower of Jesus has dropped by with a few bags to contribute to our Kitchen Table (the name of our Community Center space).
More than once, a very quiet, shy, young ex-convict has shown up on Friday night with a big smile and a couple of boxes of food to donate. (I have no idea where he gets it, as his income is extremely limited. He is just getting back on his own feet, having been in prison for 18 years. He delivers the boxes of canned items, instant oatmeal and dehydrated mashed potatoes in total silence with his head down and a broad grin from ear to ear.)
Whatever the source, we have passed on the food to those who are in immediate need. A family with four children who lost their food stamps over some confusion about the paperwork. A husband and wife who are unemployed. A single man who has AIDS and recently lost his life partner to a sudden, unexpected death. A meth addict who is trying to provide for her children.
Until recently, every time someone came asking for food, we had food to give. God had provided through one of these remarkable means. However, about a month ago, I had to turn a lady away. The shelves were bare. I wondered that day what God wanted to do about this. People in need and no way for us to meet their need. So when Spero project suggested we open a food pantry, I was thrilled! This was God’s answer to the need.
Immediately following excitement and gratefulness, anxiety rushed in. My busy schedule and unending to-do list came up before my eyes, and I wanted to just sit down in a corner somewhere. I periodically experience this phenomena, this time of year especially. February—April is our heavy, spring speaking schedule, culminating with Nomads, our spring conference. And this year, I added to the craziness of spring opening a second location of Joe’s Addiction in Deaconess Hospital (that is another story of its own.). I was exhausted. I knew there was no way I could manage a weekly food pantry. What an opportunity!—but no way to take advantage of it!
Unbeknownst to me, Carl overheard me talking about the offer. (I have written about Carl before. His continuing journey with Jesus is enough to fill an inspirational book. Another item for the to-do list.) Carl came to me and asked, “Could I take on the food pantry? Could that be my project?” Tears came to my eyes. Carl is a gifted administrator infused with abundant energy that comes from fresh transformation that Jesus is bringing to his broken life. He could do it! He could manage the whole thing! With fresh faith, hope in God’s provision, and love for the needy people.
Over the next few weeks, I watched as Carl grabbed the bull by both horns. He went to Spero Project and learned the very defined and detailed process for bagging the groceries. He created flyers to advertise in the neighborhood. He organized a door to door knocking campaign to get the word out. Then he began working on getting volunteers to help.
He recruited a volunteer to paint the windows at the Kitchen Table with a sign announcing May 1st as our opening date. He made announcements every Sunday at church. He created and posted a sign up sheet for volunteers to help bag groceries, transport food and to work the day of the food distribution.
During the weeks leading up to May 1st, Carl resembled Tigger from Winnie the Pooh. He met with me about once a week to let me know where we were in the planning. He’d come bouncing in with his papers and his lists and his ideas. His two areas of concern were transportation of the food (we would need a BIG vehicle) and what if we have too many needy families and not enough food. Spero project had allotted to us groceries for 25 families per week (as a beginning allotment). Carl was worried this might not be enough.
My worries went the other direction. Two days before the BIG DAY, I asked Carl how many people he thought we’d have. His eyebrows raised really high, and he said, “We’re going to have a lot of people.” I asked him if he had been hearing people say they were coming, or how did he know that lots of people were planning to come. Without a beat of hesitation, he responded, “God told me that we are going to have a lot of people!” My heart dropped. Oh no, I thought. What if God didn’t really say that to him? What would it do to Carl’s faith if people didn’t show up? I threw up a quick prayer, “God, you know… please show up! For Carl’s sake!”
Friday night, Carl met with me to go over the plans for Saturday. He had everything arranged. Volunteers were lined up to bag groceries, to transport the bags, to welcome people, to gather their information on a computerized form, to load the groceries into people’s cars, to carry groceries home for them if needed. He had even arranged a Prayer Volunteer to be available to offer to pray for each person who came to get food!!
MAY DAY—spring. A day of fresh, new beginnings. I came to Joe’s at around 1:30pm. The food pantry was to begin at 1:00. When I walked in, there were people everywhere. Chairs were situated into a “waiting area,” where several waited their turn to register. Behind the computer was a lady that I barely new as brand new to the neighborhood. Carl had recruited her to help—her first week in town! A volunteer was praying with an old man who held his cap in his hand and bowed his head. A group of children sat at a low table doing craft projects with Linda (I’ve written about her before). As each person registered, Carl handed them a voucher to go down to the Kitchen Table (at the other end of the building) and retrieve their bags of groceries.
I walked down there to see the kitchen organized with bags and boxes of groceries and a mountain of boxed pastries!! We were even giving out dessert! Three volunteers were loading groceries into trunks and back seats of cars.
Out in the “”Backyard,” (what used to be an empty lot behind Joe’s), volunteers from Lifechurch were painting a new fence and planting flowers in new planters they had built. They laid sod and put out two picnic tables and barbecue grills to provide a community park/gathering place. They were serving hotdogs to people who had come for food.
Carl grabbed me and said, “What are we going to do with all of this?!” Spero Project had given us the allotment for 25 families, plus extra… extra bread, extra pastries — AND they had given us the very strict policy that ALL the food had to be distributed that day. We were not allowed to save any leftover. It all had to be given out the day of the pantry. I could see Carl’s faith was wavering. What if we didn’t have enough people to take all of the food? I assured him we would find people who needed it, patted him on the shoulder, and then headed out to run some errands and to pick up a girl that I knew could use some food.
I came back at 3:45pm (15 min. before the closing of the food pantry). Carl was still sitting at the registration table. I led the girl over to the table to register. She sat down and began to give her information, including her prayer request. I looked around the room. The flurry had died down. The children’s activities were over. There was a group of regulars playing Skipbo, and there was one old man sitting in the “waiting chairs.”
I went to him and asked if he was getting everything he needed. He mumbled that Carl had told him to come back at 4pm to see if we had any leftover food. I asked him if he had gotten food earlier. He had, but he knew of some other people who could use it if we had leftovers.
The man told me that he lives down the street in one of the trailer parks. As I asked him questions, he slowly started telling me about his life. He was an air conditioner/heating man. He told me about getting old and selling out his business to a partner in California. He told me of his hopes and dreams to move to Oklahoma to be near his children and grandchildren, only to have had an unwelcome reception from them which amounted to him living at the City Rescue Mission for a while.
Tears filled his eyes when he told me how the humidity here wreaks havoc on his body. He misses California. But he’s here now, and he was able to get enough Social Security to eventually begin making payments on a trailer. He said the food he’d gotten was sure going to be a big help.
I asked him how he liked living in the trailer park. He relayed how the people there had discovered his skills. They don’t have money to call someone to come and fix their heaters, so many times during this last very cold winter, people knocked on his door. He said, “I don’t have money for parts, but I have the skills, so I help them. I’ve lived a pretty blessed life, and it’s the least I can do to give back.”
HE’S LIVED A BLESSED LIFE?! He worked hard all his life. Sold his business for little to nothing. Lost relationship with his kids. Lived in the City Rescue Mission. Now lives in a trailer park. But, “He’s lived a blessed life.”
He then went on to tell me that his ex-wife lives in a senior citizens home, where most of the people are on a very low, fixed income from Social Security and are always lacking food. He was hoping that we would have some left, so he could take our leftovers to “those folks.”
At 4pm Carl came to us and announced that the food pantry was now closed for the day, and that we did have some leftovers to send to this sweet old man’s ex-wife and her senior citizen friends. I asked Carl, “How many families did we serve?” With tears in his eyes he said, “The girl you brought in made twenty-five.” I guess providing food for people in the neighborhood is still an adventure of faith.
(Names have been changed to protect their privacy.)