For more than five years, I’ve led the benevolence ministry of our church.
There are many parts to that ministry, but today I want to focus on our food pantry. I’ve often said it’s like a global mission field with people hailing from close to two dozen countries.
We work hard to make it a warm and welcoming place with dignity. It’s set up like a small grocery store complete with carts. Shoppers get to chose the food their families need instead of being handed a one-size-fits-all bag of groceries. Our volunteers wear name lanyards so they’re not at an advantage – knowing the client names while the clients don’t know who the volunteers are.
When a client comes for the first time, we offer to pray with them as we look over their application. We also provide a letter which outlines our translation services and times, children and small group programs, and ways to contact us for prayer. We do it all over again during their annual requalification. In addition, we give them back to school supplies in a picnic setting each August, box up seasonal food for Thanksgiving along with a $25 gift card, and invite them to our Christmas Store to shop for gifts for pennies on the dollar.
But for all our efforts, and even though we know their names and faces, we haven’t really gotten to KNOW them.
Of all things, the pandemic which forced us to be apart, has begun to bring us closer to our clients. We had to recruit bi-lingual to people to take food orders over the phone. Our clientele is about 85% Spanish speaking, and while we always had at least one person on hand in The Pantry to translate simple conversations, putting together an entire shopping order required a lot more time and conversation.
As the quarantine dragged on and it became clear it would be a long time before anyone got back inside the building to shop, I wanted to find a way to keep our 40+ volunteers connected with the work.
The answer was so simple. So basic. So necessary. Prayer.
About a month or so ago, we began asking for prayer requests with each order taken. Not only would praying for our clients give volunteers a way to stay connected to them, we would bless our clients by standing in the gap and lifting them in prayer on a regular basis.
Some are general requests for health and safety. But more and more our clients are opening up and trusting us with their deepest fears, needs, and concerns. Tuesday in particular it was like the floodgates opened. The requests expressed were hard and heartbreaking.
Depression, suicidal thoughts, cancer, stroke, marital difficulties, operations, COVID-19 diagnoses, and kids struggling with school work from home are just a few that came in this week.
But while these stories are tough to hear, I’m actually EXCITED! For the first time in almost 6 years of ministry, we are getting to know our clients as individual people with lives that go far beyond their need for food. They are allowing us to care for them spiritually and not just physically and that is a major breakthrough.
It takes us 15-20 minutes to take an order and prayer request. That’s so much more quality time than when they stood in front of us in The Pantry. Sometimes, when it was especially busy, we barely looked up from the check out sheet to offer a smile, let alone spend 20 minutes of time to ask them what was going on in their lives.
This pandemic has robbed us of many things, but while we wait for a return to “normal,” it has given us some precious things too.
Chief among them is time for relationships. With God, with our families, with those in need.
Never waste the waiting. It’s always a good time to pray.