By Jennifer Powell
The line for the food pantry in East Boston stretched out the door, down the street, and around the corner. And yet, Ricardo waited for an hour and a half. He was out of work, not eligible for benefits, and needed to eat. But by the time he got to the door, the food was gone.
When David Searles, pastor of Central Assembly of God Church, heard what happened, he felt God calling him to do something. The church had only a meager food pantry and had previously done what they could to help Ricardo before referring him elsewhere, but it wasn’t enough. They had to do more for Ricardo and the many others in the community who needed food.
Social service agencies call it “food insecurity.” Parents call it having no answers when their children tell them they’re hungry. It’s something more families and individuals have been facing in recent months with job losses and restrictions due to the pandemic.
“These are hardworking people who struggle even when they can find work and now when they can’t get jobs. It’s a huge challenge,” Searles said.
Following God’s lead
Searles moved to Boston from the midwest in 1987 to attend Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. In 1990, he helped to plant a church in Dorchester. Three years later, he was called to lead his current church in East Boston. He and his family intentionally moved there so they could share the experience of the community more fully. That has helped him stay in tune with the challenges of his neighborhood such as the need for better access to food.
While the congregation was supportive of stepping up, Searles first wanted to step back and see what God was already doing.
“The God who mapped out redemption from the beginning of time was already on the move. We needed first to see what God was doing and how we could fit into that,” he said.
The team’s research revealed that there were several disconnected organizations delivering food in the area. One of the first steps was to connect them so they could coordinate their efforts. They started with a list on the church’s website.
This was not enough, however. The church needed to expand it’s food pantry, at least for a time while the demand continued to grow.
In the midst of the planning and appealing to God for guidance and resources, Park Street Church’s City Engagement Minister Kimberley Morrison called Searles to see if there was any opportunity for a partnership. They had first met through weekly calls organized by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh for the city’s faith leaders.
Park Street Church, looking for ways to not only help people in the community directly but also to support other churches in their efforts, had set up Covid-19 Rapid Response Teams to work with other organizations. One was assigned to Assembly of God.
One of the first initiatives was to take the page of listed resources on the church’s website and worked with the East Boston Neighborhood Center Resource Center to create a whole new bilingual website in Spanish and English, eastbostonresources.com. The Park Street Rapid Response Team, led by two project managers, also arranged for donations to buy food and sent volunteers to help package and distribute it.
The project managers next connected Assembly of God with Voice of the Gospel in Mattapan. That church ran a food pantry and had a connection with the Greater Boston Food Bank. They were able to increase their order and share it with the East Boston church.
Recently, the Park Street Team also helped to arrange for the purchase and delivery of another refrigerator, which was crucial to increasing the capacity of the food pantry. Having the frig meant being able to say “yes” recently when another group called to offer its extra sandwiches.
Park Street continues to provide donations through an Emergency Relief Fund. It will also be helping with food provision through its own food bank, now underway.
“It’s really amazing to see how God has called together his people across the city through this,” Searles said. “We are able to do so much more in working together.”
Matching the rise and decline of the need
The Central Assembly food pantry is now providing 250 to 350 bags of food a week up from about 60 bags. While they continue to grow to meet the current need, Searles is also looking ahead to a time when they can pull back. The growth, he said, is to respond to the crisis but as people return to work, he expects the need to decline.
Ricardo, who sparked the action, volunteered for a while at the food pantry. But he has since gone back to work and seems to be stabilizing. That is the ultimate goal for as many as possible, Searles said.
Meanwhile, he hopes that the food pantry helps to shine God’s light in his community.
“We need to be who God has called us to be,” he said. “I hope for our community that people get to see the love of God. Our hope and goal is that they give glory to our Father in Heaven. We want this to be part of the proclamation that this is what Jesus has done for us and we want people to know and be able to worship Him.