Jesus called himself the Bread of Life. As his body, the church is called to offer life with its presence. Never is this exhortation more critical than in moments of meeting the physical hunger of God’s children.
How this bread is being shared by the church during COVID-19 reveals a powerful theme: the oldest members of Christ’s body are leading the way with creativity, courage, and love.
Multiplying Bread in Silver Spring
Before March, the food pantry of Silver Spring CRC in Silver Spring, Md., served around 100 families once a month. In late July, 655 families visited in a single week.
They weren’t alone. Ten months after the first cases of COVID-19 were reported, the United Nations’ World Food Program has identified almost a billion people around the world who now face food insecurity. Beyond the immediate health crisis of the pandemic, the economic and agricultural fallout of physical distancing has left families exposed, with those who were barely managing now made even more vulnerable.
In Silver Spring, food pantry director Jennifer Renkema said the pantry’s ability to meet rising needs has been nothing short of a “story planned by God,” built in part upon a passionate group of older community and church members who believe that loving our neighbors starts with serving.
Silver Spring CRC has a special relationship with the older adults of their community, many of whom are Orthodox Jews and live together in what is called a “village.”
The village movement, started in Boston, Mass., offers a cost-efficient model for supporting aging people in their neighborhoods, connected to their local community and empowered to continue living in their homes.
Through the village model, these older adults build rich relationships with community members who support them by driving them to their doctors and grocers, hosting social gatherings and events in their homes, and performing home and yard maintenance.
Silver Spring CRC recognized the beauty of this model and committed to play a part in its local village community. Today, senior pastor Doug Bratt serves as a member of the Silver Spring Village board.
When COVID-19 erupted in Maryland and the Silver Spring CRC food pantry decided to shift to weekly food pick-ups, they were overwhelmed by the community’s needs. One evening in May, immediately after a food distribution, Bratt was chatting with Village members and was visibly discouraged: how would the food pantry continue to meet the vast demand?
That’s when the Village members showed the church what it looks like to carry one another’s burdens. These adults, who deeply understand the beauty of life in community, pledged their financial resources and time to care for families facing economic instability due to COVID-19.
Since then, the food pantry has found the food and financial support needed to serve well over 500 families every week from April through August. Funding has come from a variety of sources, including five local Catholic and Presbyterian churches and a World Renew grant.
Between April and July, World Renew granted $100,000 (USD) in small grants to churches in the U.S. and $69,000 (CN) in grants to churches in Canada, in cooperation with partner Diaconal Ministries Canada. The World Renew grants helped churches to continue their work with individuals and families in their communities experiencing financial hardship due to Coronavirus. The top services needing support in congregations throughout North America were food distribution, food preparation, and community gardens.*
The grant to Silver Spring CRC helped them stock their food pantry by enlisting the support and assets of the church’s elderly neighbors.
Food banks had been struggling because grocery stores were running low on supplies and had nothing to donate. When Silver Spring CRC found itself with enough money to purchase needed food pantry supplies but no food to buy, a woman from the Village called to ask what the pantry needed.
“Who thought I would be in a position where I had money and no food?” Renkema said. “I shared with this woman the situation, and she said, ‘You call Larry, the local kosher grocer, and he will take care of you.’ Sure enough, I called Larry, and he has been ordering food to stock the food pantry ever since, selling it to us at cost. That generosity from Larry profits him nothing, and it is everything to us.”
Almost every week holds more miraculous stories than Renkema can count.
She shared about Ms. Ruth, who lives in the senior living apartments near the church and has a fixed income. A longtime customer of the food pantry, Ms. Ruth has volunteered at the pantry for years and attends Silver Spring CRC.
With COVID, Ms. Ruth decided it was no longer wise for her to directly serve the families who visit the food pantry, but she has helped to prepare food for pick-up, giving her a chance to stay connected with friends and help the community while practicing social distancing.
“Since COVID-19, it has been hard to connect with people,” Ms. Ruth said. “They are scared, and I am scared too. I have asthma, and I am a diabetic. It’s a dangerous time, and so physical distancing is important. At the food pantry, Jennifer has really thought the safety measures through, and I appreciate that. I feel safe picking up my food and also bagging the vegetables each Tuesday with college students … and people’s children all working together and spread out.”
Renkema said Ms. Ruth is one of dozens of older neighbors and churchgoers in Silver Spring from a number of congregations who are finding a way to give back to the community while still practicing physical distancing. For Renkema, these dear, faithful souls are each a miracle sent by God to multiply bread and nourish hope. For Ms. Ruth, the Silver Spring food pantry is often the highlight of her week: “I love it; I love it; I love it. To put a smile on people’s faces gives me so much joy.”
Offering Living Water in Honduras
God’s everyday miracles stretch far beyond the borders of Maryland. In Azacualpa, a village in Honduras, Abuela (grandmother) Maira keeps hope alive in her community through a partnership with World Renew.
In Honduras, the markets pose a particular threat for virus transmission, and the government has mandated that each family is allowed to shop at the market only once every two weeks, assigning families different days to limit crowd exposure. Each time Maira or her daughter travel to the market, they must gather all the food they require to feed themselves and Maira’s grandchildren.
Maira’s family has found hope and safety through World Renew’s aquaponics initiative, which allows them to use fresh water in their own back yard to grow vegetables and raise fish and shrimp from the safety of their home.
With less than an hour of effort a day, Maira can raise fresh, nutritious food for her family without risking exposure in the market. And thanks to personal protective equipment from World Renew, she can safely travel to the homes of 100 other families to provide training so they can sustain aquaponics systems as well.
Between April and July, World Renew delivered 114,698 pounds of emergency food to families around the world who had been in lockdown. It also brought health support to more than 250,000 people throughout Latin America.
In Maira’s case, the gift of personal protective equipment combined with Maira’s courage and wisdom has meant that thousands of people in the Azacualpa community have been trained in aquaponics and now have a stable food source to provide for their families.
Sharing our Tables Around the World
For many of us, particularly those who are older or immuno-compromised, how we connect with our communities has changed radically during the pandemic. We hug less, share food less, enter one another’s homes less. Our contact with one another is more careful, and it often includes a few feet of distance.
Yet as Abuela Maira and the people of Silver Spring remind us, COVID-19 cannot hold us back from loving each other. We belong to each other, and our phone calls to grocers, bagging of vital cooking supplies, and visits to help our neighbors tend their aquaponic gardens all serve as the connective tissue of our faith right now. This is how we keep being Christ’s body and sharing his table.
This month World Renew joins thousands of churches and families in its annual World Hunger Campaign. With nearly a billion people currently experiencing food insecurity because of COVID-19, the need this year is particularly high. Even so, we see the ways in which the church continues to hunger for miracles, and we praise God for the chance to join in that story with people who offer love and courage like Ms. Ruth and Abuela Maira.
Even in these difficult times, the faith of the older generation continues to light our way.
If you are inspired by this article and seek a way to share your table this season, explore the stories of other grandmothers, families, and communities changing the story of hunger at worldrenew.net/worldhunger.
*The original version of this article did not include the Canadian funding. It was added Oct. 6, 2020.
About the Author
Katy Johnson, World Renew