Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Christ Amid the Food Cans

By Joan Conway
Eleven years as a volunteer at the St. Camillus (Silver Spring, MD) Food Pantry has shown me many miracles – the best is finding Christ right there.

Through efforts of 160 volunteers from at least 10 countries, five parishes and several schools, God has fed the poor. Each volunteer has played a key role in the ministry to God’s hungry. Shopping, transporting, shelving, organizing, pre-bagging, re-bagging of rice and beans, disposing of old food, greeting families – every step is important.

The goal at our food pantry is to offer safe, adequate, nutritious and culturally appropriate food and to see each visitor as Christ before us. Along the way I have gotten distracted by local politics, policies, the desire to be efficient, to improve our data entry process, to write grants and to decide rules for who can get food and how often. Amazingly God has used each and every discussion, each and every shelving of a can of food, each and every shopping trip to move us forward. I have never discovered the “perfect” way of running a food pantry. Yet despite our limitations, in 2002 we served about 300 families, and this year, through our hands, God has fed more than 8,500 families and touched 32,000 lives in doing so.

Food guru Michael Pollan says food is “about pleasure, about community, about family and spirituality, about our relationship to the natural world, and about expressing our identity. As long as humans have been taking meals together, eating has been as much about culture as it has been about biology.” We insist on providing culturally appropriate food. We honor and respect the dignity of the person who may have different ways of cooking or different tastes from ours. We reject the myth – “if you are hungry you will eat anything.”

As Christians we know our work goes deep. Often when the powers at the top get around to feeding people, it is conditional – you need a Social Security card, a photo ID. Amidst the food pantry discussions of ID or no ID cards, number of times per year or per month - we have not lost sight of our bottom line: feeding Christ in disguise. In a variation of that meal in the upper room, the night before Jesus died, together we break bread, we feed the sheep.

At the food pantry we realize that we need to share with one another. We receive much in return – the gift of intimacy with another. We experience God present in the compassion that arises when people look into each other’s eyes. As we strive to experience the presence of God we find the quiet sweetness of such private moments. The ministry at the food pantry offers the sweetness of sensing God amidst one another, among families in need, even with those who we find challenging, greedy, game playing, or demanding. Somehow as we continue to strive to find the face of Christ in everyone we meet, we actually do just that. We find God’s presence. This gift is so satisfying, we often cannot find words to express it, but it keeps us coming back.

Here in St. Camillus Parish and the Catholic Community of Langley Park we hold as our models Francis and Clare – a man and a woman from the 13th century – who knew intuitively that in embracing our own poverty and embracing the poverty of others we find God.


Joan Marie Conway, PhD, is a registered dietician.

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