In this new season of my life, I am not only seeking a new home congregation (see previous post), but also seeking out ways to volunteer and serve. Many ideas rolled around in my head over my final months at Trinity Lutheran Church: Soup kitchens, animal shelters, reading for the blind, visiting the lonely in nursing homes. I kept coming back to hunger issues and food pantries. A tour of New Hope Ministries at its Mechanicsburg site a couple years ago impressed me thoroughly. We pastors at Trinity routinely referred folks to New Hope Ministries to assist them in reaching a goal of financial stability. Parishioners told me how much serving there as volunteers meant to them. So I completed a volunteer application, had an interview, got my clearance, and, yesterday, began my training.
In those four hours yesterday afternoon I learned three important things. First, you can’t tell from outward appearances that a person is hungry, nor can you make assumptions about those who come in the doors. Those who struggle to put food on their tables are of all stripes. I saw young men and grandmothers, pregnant women, single adults and young children. I saw people who were discerning in their food choices at each station, selecting the most needful items. Some people took less than they were entitled to because they did not wish to waste food that could be of use to someone else. Children were delighted and surprised by some special items available that day—a four-pack of Dannon Yogurt and those Oscar-Mayer Pizza Lunchables (I remember when my kids begged for Lunchables at the grocery store, and considered them a treat). The adults were thrilled to pick out a large pack of chicken breasts (so many packages had been donated that we could give these 3-4 lb. packs out, and only have it count toward one protein choice.) Most people said “Thank you!” as we packed their selections for them in bags and boxes. All were grateful for the variety of foods, the produce on hand that day, the chance to “shop” up and down the rows of shelves with a small cart.
Second, I learned that many stores, companies, and individuals are incredibly generous. Local grocery stores routinely offer items, the US Postal Service just completed a “Stamp Out Hunger” event that brought in tons of good food stuff, and so many individuals offer resources for this ministry. In the back room were boxes yet to be opened of canned goods, pasta, cereals. The freezer had fish and sausage, ground beef and chicken. There were muffins and loaves of bread, bags of spinach and boxes of raisins, and jars of peanut butter. While I have doubts there will be a run anytime soon on jellied cranberry sauce (left over from last Thanksgiving) and matzah crackers (left over from Passover), there was plenty of both to give away as desired and needed. It’s clear that no one HAS to go hungry, and households can be sustained by these generous givers. New Hope Ministries offers what its name indicates.
Third, I learned that the other volunteers tend to volunteer in other places. They sure don’t let the grass grow under their feet. Yes, most of the volunteers are retired and seem to have the time to do this, but four hours on a Monday afternoon at New Hope Ministries isn’t the extent of their serving. I had the sense many of these volunteers serve as a way of life. It was as if it became contagious for them. One opportunity to offer compassion and help leads to another opportunity leads to another. They do their work humbly, they labor joyously, and their serving is one tangible way they lived out their faith.
I’ll have another afternoon of orientation soon, and then be assigned a four-hour stint each week. Those four hours of training certainly helped me learn the ropes of stocking shelves, bagging foods, and assisting guests as they made selections. But more than that, those four hours of training opened my eyes to see my neighbor more clearly, both the invisibly hungry and the quietly compassionate.