This past year has taught us a lot about how to be in community with those around us in new and different ways. And at times it has shown us some examples of how complicated and difficult it can be to be in community with other people. A year ago when the world as we knew it changed around us due to the pandemic, my job at Shepherd of the Valley shifted a bit in its focus. Working as a youth director my usual tasks of youth group, Faith Formation, and other youth and children’s ministries were suspended and moved online as possible. Then, as an almost Deaconess, I was tasked with managing our outreach ministries, for the first few months of the pandemic this became my main focus. How were we reaching out to our community? How could we help support our neighbors through this different and challenging time?
As we thought about ways to reach out to the neighborhood around our church one of the things that was brought up was about all the children now home from schools. From this conversation was born the idea of a snack bag ministry. Making bags of snack available for anyone to come by and pick up. We started sending a Monday Outreach email to the congregation detailing the snack bag ministry we were starting and other ways they could reach out to support those around them. We put out a bin to collect donations for the snack bags, and also a bin to collect donations for Interfaith Sanctuary and the Food Bank. The snack bags were put together with an assortment of snack items, usually cereal, granola bars, fruit cups or fruit snack, crackers, and whatever else may have been donated in a given week. After our initial few day test run in mid-April we decided to make the snack bags available 24/7. To help get the word out about them we sent out a mailing to about 300 neighbors in the area directly around the church, and posted the information on Nextdoor. As time went on we started having snack bags picked up faster than donations were coming in to fill them. We could see that the need was there.
A small group of church members got together and stated to think about more sustainable ways to continue this outreach ministry. Some of the group had heard about the mini pantry movement (a spin on the Little Free Library movement) and they decided that they wanted to build a Little Free Pantry for SOV. One of the main mottos of the little free pantry movement is “Give what you can. Take what you need.” This movement is about neighbors helping neighbors, neighbors nourishing neighbors. We launched our Little Free Pantry in September, and it has proven to be an important ministry. The flow of items through the Pantry has shown us that there is a need in this area for something like this. We have had notes left on the pantry in thanks for it, that it helped someone make it to the next paycheck when they had to choose between gas to get to work or groceries. Words of thanks from those who lost their job or were laid off and found themselves in need of assistance. We have volunteers who come by a few weeks to clean/sanitize the pantry and restock with our stock of donated items. They have also shared stories of people who have stopped by the pantry when they were restocking and who shared their appreciation.
The gift and the challenge of this ministry to our neighbors is that there are times when in a day, or sometimes in less than a day, the pantry will go from fully stocked to empty. The joy is that we have been found and are providing a space for neighbors in need of a little assistance. The challenge is that it can be tempting to wonder in these moments if people are taking advantage of the pantry. Yet, we are called to practice radical trust. Part of the power of this little free pantry movement is that it is generally anonymous. There are the few moments where we have an interaction with someone coming to drop off or pick up items from the pantry, but generally people can come by knowing they don’t need to interact with anyone. There are no expectations and no strings attached. We are called to love and serve, and that is what we do.
In this year that has put distance between us in more ways than one, there have also been many ways that it has brought us together. Ways that it has brought communities together. People who have checked in with neighbors who they know live alone, or who used signs in their windows to check in with each other. People who have stepped up to help in big and small ways. This is what it means to be in community with our neighbor, that even in an unprecedented year we still have found ways to connect and support each other. I pray that our Little Free Pantry can continue to be a place for neighbors to support neighbors.