(photo of St. Peter Church in Richmond by Shannon Kane)
BY ANDREW GEHA
AND SHANNON KANE
THE CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE
Regina made a delighted grunt as she bit in her blue sugar cookie.
“These meals are always so delicious,” she said while eating her pasta.
Regina takes part in the Downtown Community Ministry’s weekly program to help combat hunger in downtown Richmond. The Downtown Community Ministry consists of five churches: Second Presbyterian Church, St. Paul Episcopal, Third Street Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, St. Peter Catholic Church,and Centenary United Methodist Church.
Lisa Miles, the associate director of the University of Richmond’s Common Ground program, said there is a lot of hunger and need in many areas of the city.
“Hunger is much more prevalent than a lot of us think it is,” Miles said.
The churches recognized this problem and the different difficult circumstances of their neighbors. They decided to open their doors to the community together as a ministry.
This ministry formed 34 years ago in response to the high poverty level in the city of Richmond. The five churches have rotated days to provide meals for struggling Richmond residents over the years. They convene around six to eight times a year to assess the ministry’s progress in fighting hunger in the city in the name of God.
“God guides [the program]. Whatever you do to the least you do to God,” said the Rev. Gino Rossi, pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church, when discussing the ministry’s purpose.
Each church takes a different approach to feeding the hungry. St. Peter provides bagged lunches on Tuesdays.
“The lunches are very popular. We usually get around 100 people around to start the month, and the number only grows throughout the month. We’ve gotten up to 187 people before,” said Barbara Simmons, a church volunteer.
St. Peter started a dinner program on Wednesdays in 2016 with other Catholic churches in the area.
“The dinner program started with only 30 people last year and has grown to about 100 people now through word of mouth,” Simmons said.
St. Paul Church works with FeedMore, a local food bank, to feed the hungry every Thursday afternoon. FeedMore and other local grocery stores provide the food every Wednesday. Their cook, Ulli Robinson then creates the menu and prepares the meals with other volunteers from the community to serve over 100 people each week.
Hana Yun, the parish outreach and volunteer coordinator, said their work is guided by the biblical story of the road to Emmaus, which teaches to welcome the stranger.
“We really embrace this, and have opened our doors to anyone who is hungry. We don’t discriminate who comes to us for food. We try and fill the stomachs and hearts of the people who come each week,” Yun said.
St. Paul also helps connects people to services they might need to help their situation. They partner with Richmond Department of Social Services, Richmond Behavioral Health Authority, the Daily Planet,and the Veterans Affairs every week.
Centenary United Methodist Church also offers breakfast and hot lunches to the less fortunate every Friday. The church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Matthew Bates, said between 150 and 200 people are fed each week week.
Some of the church’s staff help serve the meals but the majority of the assistance comes from volunteers from the other churches in the Downtown Community Ministry as well as other United Methodist Churches in the Richmond area. FeedMore, Food Lion,and Panera Bread donate are the primary food donors.
“Our volunteers go and pick up the food in these huge boxes. I mean huge boxes. They come in on Wednesdays and Thursdays,” said Mandy Porter, the church’s administrative assistant.
(A volunteer gets ready to get the preparation process going at Centenary church – photo by Shannon Kane)
The volunteers arrive around 9 a.m. on Fridays to prepare the meals for the hungry.
“They cook up all of the food that morning. It’s like magic every Friday. We call it ‘Magic Friday,” said Porter.
Centenary opens the program at 10:30 a.m., and gives a chance for the people arriving to socialize, providing snacks and coffee before giving out their lunches half an hour later.
People are called to get their lunches in groups of 10, each grabbing a tray for their food. The meals include meat, vegetables, fruit, bread and a dessert. Everyone is allowed to go back for seconds.
The church also provides takeaway boxes so the people who comes to the lunch can bring food back to their family members who may be immobile or who were not able to attend, Porter said.
Bates said the work Centenary does with the rest of the downtown ministry to fight hunger in Richmond is just one piece of their efforts. According to the 2016 census, 26.2 percent of Richmond’s citizens are below the poverty line, and Bates acknowledged the greater need in the community beyond providing meals.
“What we do is always part of a bigger picture,” Bates said. “We are always in touch with other social service organizations,” he continued, saying that Centenary tries to help people get to the resources they need for housing, employment, medical care, and more.
Despite how deep the problem of poverty runs in Richmond, Miles expressed faith in the local government to continue to work for a better future.
“I think we have a Richmond city government that is very aware of what needs to happen,” Miles said. “There’s talented leaders and a lot of good will,” she said in reference to the city’s creation of various anti-poverty initiatives.
However, Miles said combatting the intertwining issues of hunger, unemployment and lack of transportation is a long-term process.