"Clown car" offers food & hope

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, every organization has needed to rethink how it operates. Churches were among the first to take a hit when gathering for mass became impossible. But as parishioner and volunteer John Shuler put it: “the churches aren’t empty, they’ve been deployed.” St. Lawrence the Martyr in Hanover, MD and Matt’s House Mission Church in Arbutus, MD have found that their community service efforts are more in demand than ever. Steve Sarneki, a deacon at St. Lawrence the Martyr, is used to connecting the dots between the community’s needs and its resources. A few months before the pandemic set in, he established a food-swapping relationship between his church, AgriMex produce in Jessup and the Franciscan Center, an organization serving the poor and homeless in Baltimore. The Franciscan Center needed fresh produce, and AgriMex had some to donate; a St. Lawrence the Martyr parishioner volunteered to transport the food in his pickup truck. “I would call it dumb luck, I would call it persistence,” Sarneki said. “It’s been a great relationship.” That relationship has been especially useful as need has increased. Before the coronavirus, the Franciscan Center served about 350 meals a day. Now it’s serving over 3,000, making to-go meals for pick-up and delivery. The National Guard started helping the Center distribute food in early April, and the city of Baltimore has leveraged the Center as well. St. Lawrence the Martyr has kept pitching in to help the Franciscan center when it can. It passed on a donated refrigerator to the Center, and it’s kept up donations of produce from AgriMex. It’s meant pulling together some last-minute efforts — A few weeks ago, Sarneki packed his small, beat-up Hyundai with cases of donated food to make sure none of it went to waste. “In the end it was like a clown car of produce,” Sarneki joked. St. Lawrence parishioners have also been volunteering with a food distribution project through Matt’s House Mission Church. Usually, Matt’s House hosts a drop-in center that serves free breakfast and lunch to anyone in the community who needs it — usually about a dozen people a day, three days a week. "It’s a place where they can come in off the street to be able to engage in conversations with other people, hopefully to also forge friendships and relationships,” Shuler said. In addition to free meals, the center has board games, puzzles, a Bible study and a computer for guests to use. A full-time social worker, Abbé Sidery, runs the center with the help of a rotation of volunteers. Shuler and his wife have been volunteering at the center weekly for several years. Having people coming in and out of the center isn’t possible at the moment. Instead, volunteers are putting together bagged meals for 32 people and driving them to clients. The organizers’ original idea was to replicate the drop-in center’s community by visiting clients in their homes. With virus cases still on the rise and the stay-at-home order still in place, this turned out not to be feasible. Even so, Shuler hopes the efforts can offer some solace to their clients who might be lonely. “We adopted a policy of not going into peoples’ houses, just dropping the food off or just handing it to them, and if they wanted to chat a little bit we’re keeping our distance, we’re wearing masks,” Shuler said. “We’re not able to… engage with them as much as we would like, but we’re just doing what we can.” These churches’ organizing efforts have been a source of hope and community for the volunteers, too. “The effort helps to draw people who are needy back to feeling connected, but it also serves the people in the churches to feel needed and to feel like they’re connected,” Sarneki said. Organizers have been encouraged by the number of people willing to donate their time to these efforts. The community service offers something of a silver lining in an otherwise stressful and overwhelming time. Sarneki hopes that this service is sustained. One of his worries is that the “day after Christmas effect” might set in — between Thanksgiving and Christmas, organizations are overflowing with offers to volunteer, but they dissipate as soon as the holidays are over. He hopes the same doesn’t happen as the pandemic goes on. “The needs are still there,” Sarneki said. “The thing I hope people can understand in this is that the need was there before, the need is there now, and the need is not going away.” But he’s encouraged by the way he’s seen different community efforts come together during the pandemic. He thinks it could serve as a good blueprint for the future. “I see coming out of this, churches independently and churches together and the community together, kind of building the muscle memory of giving,” Sarneki said.