Monday, June 14, 2010

Open Table of Christ, Providence, RI

During the second week in June, we were privileged to visit the Open Table of Christ United Methodist Church in Providence, RI. It occupies an aging facility (built in stages starting in 1895) located in the heart of an economically challenged and highly ethnically diverse area in Providence.

Open Table of Christ was formed in 2006 as a merger of two congregations. We met with Pastor Duane Clinker, who is leading the church toward a new vision of a radically open, multi-cultural, multi-racial community church with its center of gravity among the poor. Duane envisions the church as building community, being community.

At the time of the merger, the church housed and ran the 3rd largest food pantry in the state. Unfortunately, an undetected water leak caused a very bad mold problem, which ruined most of the stored food and severely damaged the basement pantry locations. Nevertheless, Open Table of Christ did not give up on the food pantry. The church voted to move the pews out of the sanctuary, store food in a room that had been a lounge, and set up the pantry for guests in the chapel twice a week.

The food pantry, now called “New Horizons Community Pantry,” forms the heart of Open Table of Christ’s community ministry today. We met and worked with Jerry Viou, Project Outreach Administrator, who is in charge of the food pantry (and much more). Here he is, ready to welcome guests to the sanctuary:

The day we helped out, the pantry operated like this:
  • Guests arrived as early as 5:30 AM. Doors to the sanctuary opened around 7:30 when the floor manager arrived. Guests signed in, got a number, and waited in the sanctuary, where Jerry had quiet music playing and volunteers served coffee and snacks. Pantry food is extremely important to them. While most are eligible for SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), many do not sign up due to language barriers, illiteracy, or fear based on their immigration status.
  • Meanwhile a dozen or so caring and dedicated volunteers readied food to offer to guests. A large donation of bread arrived from Panera Bread and other local stores. We repacked some of the bread, such as bagels, into portions approximately equal to 1 loaf of bread. We also moved boxes of food from the storage area into the chapel and arranged it on long tables. All that food had come from food drives and the RI Community Food Bank, but due to a very large incidence of food that had arrived damaged by rodents, dirty, out of date, or opened, each can, jar, and package was carefully checked by volunteers. Anything that was not wholesome and clean was discarded. Pictured here is an example we found of a jar which not only had expired in 2005 but also was leaking.
PLEASE:  When you donate to food drives, give only food you would be proud to serve at your own table.
  • At about 9:30, the pantry was ready for guests. Jerry read a short Bible passage and said a prayer with the guests who had been waiting patiently in the sanctuary. His English message was translated into Spanish and Portuguese by bilingual guests or volunteers. Then each guest, assisted by a volunteer who could help translate food labels, came into the chapel and selected pasta, pasta sauce, tuna, beans, vegetables, a baking item (such as jello or a cake mix), a loaf of bread, a condiment item, and a fruit or soft drink (as long as the supply lasted). 
  • By 10:30 all the guests had received food, and the volunteers returned the remaining food to storage.
  • Like many good community programs, Project Outreach partners with many other organizations. For example, a doctor comes every Tuesday to assist pantry guests. There are classes in ESL and in management of common health conditions such as asthma and diabetes. And the AS220 Broad Street Studio created a gallery in the chapel displaying photographs with moving quotes by guests.

This pantry faces tremendous obstacles every day. They have an aging building, substandard and decreasing food donations, and increasing need in their community. But through it all, Open Table of Christ is becoming a vibrant, multicultural, urban community center.

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