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January 27, 2016
Similar to our Vocation of Peacemaking series, The Borders I Cross is a series of reflections from BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz members and friends about their peacemaking journeys. This particular series focuses on the many borders crossed for peacemaking, which include physical borders as well as those such as language, culture, race, religion, nationality, generation, class, and sexual orientation. These essays come from people from all walks of life; those who cross borders as students, in their paid professions, in their volunteer time, in their family lives and/or in retirement. We hope you enjoy this new series from the BPFNA!
I make my way downstairs before 8:30 on Saturday morning to prepare for the first food pantry of 2016. We don't open until 11:00, but it takes a while to set up. I start brewing the day’s first pot of coffee and look outside; clients are already lining up. As I move on to my next task, I hope that there won't be any arguments today over who is first in line.
Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries' Food Pantry, a ministry of Metro Baptist Church in NYC, provides emergency food for nearly 800 people every month. Some of our clients are regulars who come as often as they are able; others stop by only once. Some are homeless, and some live in SROs (Single Room Occupancy shelters) or affordable housing units. Others live in average apartments; no one would guess that they'd have to get groceries at a food pantry. Most speak English, but a sizable minority speak only their native language. The one thing they all have in common is food insecurity.
Food insecurity is "the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food." According to the Food Bank of New York City, one in every eight New Yorkers is food insecure. That’s around 1,000,000 people. That statistic is even worse among vulnerable demographics: one in every five children and senior adults, one in six adult women, and almost one in three veterans is food insecure in New York City. While most of us take our next meal for granted, the threat of hunger is a constant companion for our clients. This is why eight people were lined up outside, over two hours early in spite of the temperature hovering just above freezing.
As soon as the coffee finishes brewing, I head to the basement and find that Ruby has arrived before me. Ruby has been volunteering at the food pantry for longer than I’ve been working here. He is the most dedicated volunteer we have. A drag queen, retired actor, and one of the most talented performers I’ve ever met, Ruby came to us first as a client and eventually began to volunteer. He knows what it's like to need a little help affording groceries and believes in giving back since someone was there to help him when he needed it. Besides volunteering every time the doors are open, Ruby helped raise thousands of dollars and collected hundreds of pounds of food for us when he hosted three live shows starring Broadway and national celebrities called “Ruby Rims and Friends do the Can-Can.”
By 10:00, most of our volunteers have arrived, and by 10:45, we finish setting up. About 30 people have braved the cold on their Saturday morning off instead of sleeping in. Before opening the doors to our clients, I make my usual speech. I tell them that RMM runs a “client choice” food pantry, which means we don’t pre-pack bags with what we think clients need. Instead, we set up the basement like a grocery store and invite our guests to pick out what they know they need. Aside from preventing food waste, this distribution model empowers our clients and honors their dignity. Giving them a choice also gives respect to their cultural, religious, health, and taste preferences.
Other pantries have geographic limitations, but RMM’s does not. We believe access to food is a human right that transcends zip codes. I remind the volunteers that our food pantry receives funding through a combination of government grants and private donations. Our staff includes a paid employee (me) and volunteers, as does the public library, for instance. No one is embarrassed to check out a book from the library instead of buying one, and no one should be embarrassed about shopping here instead of a grocery store. I know I can count on my staff to treat our clients the way they would expect to be treated when they go shopping anywhere else. By now, most of them know the speech by heart.
Once I open the doors, the real work begins. The people who come in are cold and hungry. In the end, there was an argument over line precedence. We had language interpreters for most people, but a few required my employing Google Translate in order to try (and largely fail) to communicate with them. It was messy, exhausting, cold, and beautiful. It reminded me of something that could have been a parable. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a food pantry that feeds the hungry without reserve. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a place where 30 people wake up early on their day off to serve…like a place in the city where a homeless person is looked in the eye for a change…like a church committed to the social principles of Christ’s teaching…like people of all faiths and no faith working together for a common cause…like a drag queen headlining at a church fundraiser. The Kingdom of Heaven is like Saturday mornings.
Rev. Joe Perdue is the Pastoral Resident at Metro Baptist Church and the Food Justice Coordinator at Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries, Metro’s sister nonprofit. Joe received a Master of Divinity in Biblical Interpretation from Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, and blogs at fortheloveofgodandcoffee.