Why are you talking about having no bread? – Mark 8:17
“You shouldn’t feed this kind of food to these people. If they are hungry enough, they’ll eat anything.”
There’s a hunger beyond food that’s expressed in food. And, that’s why feeding is always a kind of miracle.
Food helps the sick and injured when the cook’s intention is incorporated in the “broth”.
Delicious food can be one of the last experiences of physical joy for the dying.
Food and healing go together because when you feed others with integrity, you help them heal.
Sharing food in the food pantry is a sacrament.
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The food pantry was in the basement of a church right off the village green.
And, I hadn’t even darkened the door in a church in over thirty years; not as a congregant, not as a guest. The closest I came to the inside of a church or syagogue was a graveside burial service for an older relative in a military cemetery outside Culpepper, Virginia. I also attended a Jewish wedding in a hotel in Baltimore.
When I became a pantry volunteer, I found myself in the local interfaith community, a stranger in a foreign land. Right away I noticed that, intermixed with the need for peanut butter, shoppers showed a strong spiritual need for connection, acceptance. This was the hunger beyond food. The closest many shoppers ever got to a church or synagogue service was the pantry line in the basement of the building.
A food pantry is another way to have a religious service. Sharing food is the prayer. Food distribution in the pantry is a spiritual experience.
When things really get going, pantry volunteers regularly distribute thousands of pounds of cereal, beans, soup, grapes, lettuce, carrots, and squash, bread, cheese, eggs.
A liturgy is hidden in how we process the shoppers through the barn, the hallway, and the pantry room. The pantry offers Communion to a group of people in the middle of a spiritual journey.
In the beginning, I didn’t see this. Then, I began to get glimmers. I saw things in people’s faces – I didn’t know what. I couldn’t explain it. But I recognized it. I saw an expression, and had an “aha” moment.
This Communion doesn’t require much. Shoppers and volunteers simply sign in at the food pantry door. People came from all different places spiritually and religiously: agnostics, atheists, B’Hais, Buddhists, Christians, Confucians, Jains, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Russian Orthodox, Shintos, Sikhs, Zoroastrians.
Early on, I saw something in a person’s face but didn’t know what. I couldn’t pinpoint, describe or explain what I saw.
The man who lost what he believed was the last job of his life…
The old woman with her toddler grandson who chose his own apple at every pantry visit…
The senior wearing a baseball cap with “Korean War Veteran” embroidered on the front…
They came through the line and took what they needed for the week: tomatoes, a bag of salad mix, squash, onions, potatoes. They received what they chose with no strings attached. Our nation’s abundance stocked the pantry.
Volunteers distribute food unconditionally to everyone who shops, without exceptions. Hungry people pour through the basement weekly and leave, their arms loaded. Some of them get almost more fresh produce and Bread Alone bread than they can carry.
And, if they can’t carry it, Richard, Robert, Jamie, and Little Mikey (the entire Allen family) help.
This family has a mission. They help get supper from the pantry into people’s cars and on its way to their homes.
Each week I opened the pantry when I unlocked the outside door with a key. The locked building also housed a beautiful sanctuary. As volunteers, we were allowed in the portion of the hallway where the pantry and storeroom were located.
Each turn of the key reminded me that a church with no one in it is just a building.
We encountered faith in the pantry outside the church sanctuary on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons. With little or no religious doctrine, these weekly encounters were as freeform and varied as a faith can be because the State of New York insisted on secular food pantries. I felt our pantry represented civic religion – belief in things without including God. Everyone going through the pantry had a different doctrine.
It was all okay.
The whole thing reminded me of the birthplace of Lyndon B. Johnson at the memorial built in his honor in Johnson City, Texas. After spending time at the memorial, I realized I visited a deeply religious and spiritual place…but it was civic.
There’s room for civic religious beliefs in the pantry. After all, worship can happen in the most varied placees: inside a jail cell, a cemetery, on Facebook, at a family table, a roadside shrine, a person praying on a rug at high noon in a parking lot somewhere, a mountainside, a stream, a hospital room, a monastery.
All it takes is for someone to be alert to what’s happening.
For me, every shopper and volunteer has meaning and is cherished. Each and every one is of profound value. It doesn’t matter whether or not anyone else sees them as successful or beautiful or useful even. Success, beauty, and usefulness doesn’t impact anyone’s worth. Everyone in the pantry is worthy.
That’s what matters.
Looking back on my time in the food pantry, no one else saw any similarity between Communion and the food pantry.
Church members never noticed the most popular service in that building each week fed the hungry at the food pantry in the basement.
And, I didn’t either in the beginning.
Later, when I recognized the face of God, I got it.
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“You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water.” – Psalm 63:1
“That person lives in Shandaken. He shouldn’t even be here.”
The pantry served shoppers, volunteers, hungry people. Volunteers fed everyone in the line. No exceptions.
Distributing groceries brought forgiveness and healing. Healing was an after thought of forgiveness.
For me, healing required some commitment and thought. Whether or not this was true, questions always arose:
“Am I ready to be healthy?”
“Can I get well if it’s scary?”
“Can I leave the old me aside if it’s necessary for healing?”
“Why am I going through this?”
“What is the meaning of it all?”
These questions could be painful. Healing can be hard on everyone.
The pantry line had massage therapists, Reiki practitioners, medical intuitives, and other healers.
As a healer, I know healing happens on several levels in our lives: physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, mythical. Both healing and getting well were special challenges because many of the people in the hallway, the pantry room, and out in the parking lot didn’t have health care.
While he had his office, Woodstock had Dr. Longmore. After his office closed, things were tough for many. As health care became scarce, everyone became personally involved with the differences between healing and getting well. For some, this was part of the spiritual journey.
Hunger often went beyond a plate of beans or a jar of peanut butter. That’s why food is essential to healing. That’s where homemade soup comes in.
Sharing food in the pantry helped people heal. Fresh vegetables, eggs, and Bread Alone bread offered a healing experience with abundance. As we fed the shoppers, we helped ourselves and each other.
In some cases, the shoppers became the volunteers or the volunteers joined the shoppers. Shoppers came to get food and found they could volunteer. Volunteering changed them. As a person distributed groceries, the volunteer made contact with another person and was able to smile.
Pantry experiences coaxed us out of our own problems. Offering a sense of community gives back so much more.
Do you want to be healed? Healing and feeding are connected.
Sooner or later, we all get sick. Finally, we die.
No one escapes. This truth is harder on hungry people who have no $$$ for health care.
Hungry people are often blamed for their inability to deal with the situation. It’s as if it’s their fault for being down and out in Woodstock. If they lived right, they would be healthier, make more $$$ in their jobs.
If critics stopped and thought about how insufficient nutritious food, improper housing, and inadequate or nonexistent healthcare impacts a person, they might feel differently.
What did it matter that there were no jobs in the area and none of those that came open paid over $8.00 an hour?
Because they were down and out, they must be guilty of something.
They were negative thinkers, lacking faith, and basically lazy. Something.
They were gay, trans, promiscuous, alcoholics. Something.
They were freeloaders, irresponsible, flaky. Something.
Healing and getting well are two different things, acting in different ways. But, whether a person heals, gets well, or both, change happens.
“Do I want to heal?”
“Do I want to be well?”
“What if I come out of this experienced a different person?”
“What if it takes a long time?”
In the midst of this, the pantry offered some normalcy to the shattered lives of hungry people when they took pantry food home to wherever and whatever that was, fixed a meal, and served it to those in the household.
It was supper from the pantry.
Health issues pointed to the spiritual challenges which popped up on the path to the pantry. Healing was on the agenda. We all wanted to get well.
People getting well overcome symptoms. Getting well means doctor’s visits, therapy, pills, creams. These things were simply not an option for pantry shoppers because there was no money.
Symbolic healing occurred in the hallway on pantry days as shoppers and volunteers discussed their diabetes, PTSD, cancer, allergies.
Working and shopping in the pantry was therapy to volunteers and shoppers. These hallway conversations were cheaper than the physical and mental health services they had no money for anyway.
These conversations were essential because talking about a health issue promotes healing. Shared symptoms gave us all support, strength, validity.
Everyone walking through the door to the pantry, whether a shopper or volunteer, was asked to leave the past behind. This experience was different for everyone. But, think about it, how can we move forward into our new lives if we never give anything up.
For some, giving up the past means letting go of things lost: the job, the home, maybe the family, self-esteem, the car, good health, money, insurance, the pet, anger, or drugs.
As the past disappears, the remaining spiritual baggage weighs less and less. Prejudices become fewer. Fears diminish. We heal!
Some things surrendered were physical, some mental, and some emotional. But, one thing is certain, whatever the category, the experiences all had a spiritual aspect.
Giving and receiving food brought everyone a little peace.
Everyone coming to the pantry heals somehow. The pantry community supports and approves hungry individuals as they climb back on the road to wellness and something offering normalcy.
Nobody just wakes up one day and says “I think I’ll go down to the local food pantry and volunteer.” People spending time in pantries all travel down the path. Healing has signposts along the way.
Some needed physical healing. Volunteers occasionally came to the pantry so ill that they were barely able to make it into the building. When this happened, I stationed them at the Items of Dignity table distributing toilet paper, shampoo, razors. They offered one roll of toilet paper and one other item to each shopper.
Each week, Deanna slowly walked the two blocks to the pantry and then worked in the hallway a couple of hours while she gathered enough energy to return home.
“Don’t forget your roll of toilet paper, Judith. We’ve got some hand cream today. Can you use that or would you prefer tooth paste?”
When Deanna finally couldn’t work in the hallway anymore, Rachel gracefully sat at the Items of Dignity table helping shoppers choose their two items. Rachel lived in nearby Mt. Tremper. Her living situation seemed somewhat precarious because every few months she looked for a new place to live. She lived in her car a couple of times.
Thank you for reading this blog post. This is the first food pantry article on healing.
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