By Kristine Blaess
In 2020, one of our young members proposed his Eagle Scout project — a tiny pantry on the church grounds like the tiny free libraries that have sprung up. Volunteers would supply the pantry and others could take what they needed. Food insecurity is a pressing issue in our community, and this pantry would help. I like supporting Scouts in their projects, especially when they serve our downtown community.
But I confess to asking enough questions to test the grit of the Scout. Who will fill the pantry? How often? What if it sits empty? Who will pick up trash? What about vandalism? Is there an exit strategy if needed?
I wondered about the value of passive outreach. If people come just for food, don’t they miss a chance to connect with rental assistance or programs for their children? Don’t they miss a chance for a dignifying conversation?
I worried about the missed opportunity for our members, too. Our CONNECT ministry (which addresses economic insecurities), overnight women’s shelter, and Wednesday dinners bless both ways. They offer chances for people with very different lives to gather and share a meal, work on a problem, or play board games. Spending time together in conversation is transformational. I wondered: could a give-what-you-can, take-what-you-need food pantry match our other outreach ministries for building relationships?
God bless our Eagle Scout for his undaunted persistence. He worked with the vestry on the design and location of the pantry. He scheduled groups to care for it. He received permission from the city. He raised funds and worked with his Scout troop to build and install the pantry.
And in the past 18 months, the tiny pantry has become a grassroots ministry of its own. It has gone through three iterations, moving from an organized ministry of the church to a community-supported pantry, to an organic meeting place where friendships are being built. Watching these changes take place has also changed me in ways that I like.
In the early days of the pantry, it was an organized outreach of the church. Groups like Daughters of the King faithfully brought groceries during their assigned months. Members picked up trash (and there was some). I was impressed by the system our Eagle Scout had created and our members’ dedication.
Many days during this season I walked around the campus picking trash and discarded belongings out of bushes. Some days I would cry when I picked up wasted food and warm clothing. I was bothered when I would see folks empty the entire pantry into their backpacks. I noticed the unflattering assumptions I made about our neighbors, and the Holy Spirit started re-forming my heart for them.
A second iteration of the pantry emerged when a Facebook group began sharing news about several new tiny pantries in the county. Group members posted photos when they filled a pantry and cheered each other on. The group’s joy in filling and caring for the pantries was palpable. The group now has 4,600 members championing 25 tiny pantries in the county.
During this time, the pantry was stocked by members of the community several times each day and emptied just as often. Several mornings our outreach chair and I stood looking at the pantry, marveling how the grass was worn away in front of it. She began making plans for laying pavers, and we watched foot and car traffic increase.
We were dismayed when shots were fired at another tiny pantry in town. A dispute had arisen between a business owner and one of our homeless neighbors. The business owner shot into the air to punctuate his grievance, and no one was injured. Television news asked the Facebook group for comment. The TV station chose to film in front of our pantry because it was the nicest in town. I realized at that moment the pantry was no longer “ours” but belonged to the community, for better or worse.
We were blessed as the community began to take care of the pantry. One night, the door of the pantry was vandalized. A church member took the door home to repair it, but before he completed the repairs a new door was installed. We don’t know who installed it, but we are grateful. The new door is white instead of the original green, and hangs as a testament to the grassroots community that has gathered.
I have largely stopped walking the campus to clean up trash and abandoned possessions. Occasionally there are messes, but the community seems to be caring for this space. I have quit keeping tabs on how the pantry is being used, although I continue to be saddened when people waste the food gifts. I give thanks that this pantry has become a community ministry rather than the outreach of one Scout or one church.
A third iteration snuck up on us as our members began building friendships with our homeless neighbors as they stood around the pantry together. The friendships started as a question: “Is there any particular food you want?” In asking, we learned that John needs low-sodium tuna because of his high blood pressure.
We learned Renee is three months sober and trying to reunite with her husband. It was a joyful Sunday when I looked out at the congregation and saw that one of our older women had brought Renee to worship with her.
Diane is having a mental breakdown, and we learned to call the mental-health unit to help her stay safe. Joe worships with us all morning on Sundays, and struggles with his mental health. Kelly tiptoes in and out of worship, and sometimes enjoys the women’s Bible study.
Mike and Daniel are on our “not to be on campus” list as we are learning to set healthy boundaries. Our staff and ushers recently completed de-escalation training, so we have more confidence offering hospitality and setting boundaries that are healthy and safe for everyone.
Our tiny pantry has, over time, become known as the Blessing Box. In 18 months, it has provided thousands of food items for neighbors who are hungry. This is an enormous blessing in itself. But its blessings extend even further.
The best blessings include the growth of a county-wide grassroots community. The best blessings include the friendships being built between our homeless neighbors and our members. The best blessings include the transformation of our hearts and minds as we step out of our comfort zone and receive grace from, and share grace with, our neighbors. The Holy Spirit is in the community formed around the Blessing Box, and we are seeing God’s grace, growth, and healing through it.