So … How IS That Call to Ministry Working Out? Episode #4: The one about providing food to hungry people

by Joann Neuroth

There was nothing gradual or tentative about the commitment made by Sue Emmert, a graduate of the ninth class of On Being a Spiritual Nurturer, to the food ministry that is now a big part of her life.  She remembers a Meeting for Business in the summer of 2020 when her meeting’s Peace and Social Justice committee proposed erecting a “Tiny Pantry” – a box mounted outside the Meetinghouse modeled after the “Little Free Library” neighborhood exchange sites, designed for people to drop off or pick up food.  Her heart just leapt up and said “Yes!  Oh yes! I’ll do that!”  She laughs and adds that she usually experiences MfB as a deliberate, calm and reflective space, but there was no denying the exuberant joy that welled up inside her at the prospect having a concrete way to respond to community hunger in her neighborhood.  She wonders whether it was just inside her head or if others heard what felt like babbling excitement – “It’ll be easy.  I drive past the meetinghouse on most days, and I’ll just put a carton of beans in my trunk and stop to see … and I can … and …”

The Tiny Pantry movement is a grassroots crowdsourced solution to immediate local food need. It was the early pandemic that called the meeting’s attention to the acute need but they discovered that food insecurity had been intensely present in their community long before that.   Sue, and her monthly meeting – Red Cedar Friends Meeting in Lansing, Michigan – discovered a local nonprofit that had worked with Home Depot to assemble and sell “kits” for use by neighborhood groups that wanted to create 24-hour “no questions asked” sites stocked by donors and used by hungry people.

By October of 2020, Red Cedar’s box was in operation, and Quakers as well as neighbors began dropping off food.  Unsure at first how much traffic to expect in their location somewhat off the beaten path, they found that the need was real:  the box was usually emptied and needed to be replenished daily.  Keeping a variety of offerings in the small space meant holding bulk purchases inside the meetinghouse in order to distribute them over time, and that meant re-organizing space.  And there was a learning curve about what items were popular and disappeared immediately (Vienna sausages, protein like tuna and canned chicken, baby food and peanut butter) and which were less likely to move (bags of dried beans, lentils, rice).

Originally, the Quakers sought out food that didn’t require a can opener, picturing unhoused people needing to be able to open pop tops or individual serving vacuum bags.  But as they met more of the people who began to make use of the offerings, they found that it wasn’t just people without housing.  Grandmothers came by to supplement what they were able to feed their grandchildren on their limited, food-stamp incomes, and parents looked for things to pack in lunch boxes.  So they now provide a mix of ready-to-open-and-eat things and also pasta and corn bread mix and hot cereal for use in kitchens with stoves.

The simple idea at the beginning – that people would just stop by and put a loaf of bread or a can of beans in the box every now and then – seemed to demand some more organization and thought:  where to store the waiting goods, how to schedule “feeding the pantry” daily so it could be a reliable source, how people without time to shop could participate by contributing funds and having someone – Sue – do the shopping.  It is actually a part of the work that Sue finds satisfying:  thinking how to stretch resources to make the most food available with available funds.  This has involved searching out bargains and identifying the most economical sources of popular items (soups and bread, for instance).  And more:  last November, for instance, Sue discovered that her local Volunteers of America store holds a “Half-price Tuesday” sale, where she can load up her arms with winter scarves and hats for $1 a piece, so that she could begin to tuck warm clothes in among the food each day during cold weather.

Sue also enjoys the practical aspect of actual physical activity required – hauling in cases of groceries to stock the cupboards, organizing and sorting what’s available for easy daily use, then assembling what’s needed for “feeding the pantry” on a given day – depending on what’s been taken and what’s available.  There’s also physical labor involved in shoveling the snow during some seasons to allow the rolling cart to deliver the two bulging grocery bags usually required.

A typical day’s groceries costs about $30, so over the course of 365 days, Sue estimates that as much as $10,000 of food passes through the modest wooden box.  Some of this comes from actual food drop-offs (and Red Cedar has been gratified to find residents from the condos across the street are joining the project).  Funds also arrive from individuals who want to be part of the effort but for whom shopping is hard or not enjoyable – Sue receives ongoing cash donations with the note “Thanks for shopping for me!”  Still another part is financed by fundraisers organized by a local women’s chorus or by a table at the community’s Alternative Christmas sale.  And the last resort back-up is stabilized by a line-item in Red Cedar’s budget.

“Ministry” for Sue is not any specific kind of activity.  Instead, it is something pulled out of a person in response to seeing a way to make the world better – more peaceful, more equal, more loving, more inclusive.  It might be active, but it could also be interior and reflective, like compassion or prayer.  It grows out of being open to seeing and not turning away from the nudge that arises out of contemplative depth. And, she notes, it often requires (and generates) courage to tackle something one might never have done before.

Some people talk with Sue about their worry whether the food is getting to people who “really need it” and who aren’t “just taking advantage of” the availability of free food.  But the “no questions asked” nature of this effort feels to Sue like part of the ministry – moving not from wariness or judgment but from generosity and a will to remake the world in God’s image.  Sue loves the sense of putting food where it’s needed, blessing it, and letting go of what happens with it.  It enables her to engage without awkwardness in conversation with folks she meets on the sidewalk as they stop by to pick things up.  Sometimes she gets to hear part of their story and has to practice being willing to listen to needs larger than we’re prepared to respond to.  Sue remembers a recent exchange with a young woman who did have a backpack and warm coat but reported that she couldn’t find a warm bed through all the available referral places … and was dependent on her “guy” who knew someone who’d let them sleep inside on the floor. Connecting this with another conversation in which a young woman described life on the street including being repeatedly raped, this was one day Sue remembers crying on the way home.

The ministry gives back to Sue as well; during the three COVID years since the pantry began, this effort has been one of the things that have sustained Sue’s spirit.  (The other is the gift of being able to provide daily day-care for her grand-boys, ages 2 and 4 when their childcare arrangements closed down.)  Having these concrete things to do has left her feeling well-used and purposeful instead of isolated and disconnected.  She experiences the work as a pragmatic way of praying and bringing blessing into the world.  It seems to her like she could more often take time to explicitly ask for and bestow a verbal blessing as she works, but she acknowledges that it happens less often than she’d like.  On the other hand, when she comes around the corner of the building with her cart of groceries and feels her heart open up with curiosity about who she’ll meet and what connection she’ll be able to make on this day, she feels genuine love for the people she meets or remembers, and she’s clear that this is both a concrete form of prayer and a ministry.  And is glad to be able to respond to the call.

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1 thought on “So … How IS That Call to Ministry Working Out? Episode #4: The one about providing food to hungry people”

  1. Sue’s efforts — and exuberance — have turned the Tiny Pantry into a lynchpin for Red Cedar to find other ways to touch our neighborhood and to meet the needs of its people. It is the foundation upon which we are trying to become more sensitive, more responsive, more welcoming, more inclusive to people who, like us, share the the Spirit within. I am so happy that she — and all those who have helped her — the seeds for a spiritual awakening, one bean, one sausage, one embrace at a time.

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