North Carolina Mission Thankful for Food Pantry and More
The Catholic Community of Bertie County experienced a traumatic loss in 2009 when its founding pastor, Glenmary Father Mike Langell, passed away suddenly April 29. But he left a lasting legacy behind. During this Thanksgiving season, those with whom he built the North Carolina Catholic community say they have many reasons to be thankful. One striking example is the Good Shepherd Food Pantry that opened just five days after Father Mike's death—first initiated by him and the Catholic community and now an unprecedented ecumenical effort to feed the hungry in the county.
Five years ago, Father Mike arrived in Windsor to call together a small, diverse community of Catholics, the majority of whom are educators and their families from the Philippines. The Catholic community gathers at the local Methodist church in Windsor to celebrate weekly Mass. Father Mike eventually became pastor of the mission church in nearby Washington County, which is led by a pastoral coordinator.
With Father Mike's passing, Brothers Jack Henn and Curt Kedley—who joined the mission team in 2007 to provide outreach ministry to the county—have stepped in to guide the Windsor mission and handle some pastoral and administrative functions. And Jesuit Fathers Paul Brant and Bruce Bavenger take turns celebrating Mass, with one of them visiting almost every week.
"Losing Father Mike was very difficult, because he had an incredible impact on the people," Brother Curt says. "But one of the gifts he gave us is that he always encouraged lay leadership. We worked and prayed to build a strong, faith-filled community in Bertie County. So mission members were ready to take on even more responsibility."
About 30 percent of Bertie County residents live below the national poverty level, so one of the mission's priorities was to establish a county food pantry to serve everyone in need. Several small food pantries have been established by local churches for their own congregations. Father Mike was a driving force behind a more widespread effort, but early attempts fell short.
In April 2008, a fortunate meeting in a grocery store between Brother Curt and Timothy Bazemore, a member of St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church, eventually led to some landmark events in the county, where more than 60 percent of the population is African American.
Brother Curt and Timothy talked about and began to implement ways to break down religious and racial prejudice—through a variation on the "pulpit swap," where the Baptists attend Sunday Mass and the Catholics attend Sunday services, and social justice outreach. Timothy, on behalf of his church, offered Father Mike and the Catholic community help with the food pantry effort.
This offer resurrected pantry plans, which eventually involved the Catholic, Missionary Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal and Southern Baptist churches. "It was a tremendous step in our county for all these churches to participate in a collaborative effort," Brother Curt says.
During this process, two grants were received for the food pantry-a parish assistance grant from the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh that served as seed money to help begin providing pantry services, and later a grant from the local Catholic Albemarle Deanery to support the services. "Receiving those funds was a blessing and a great help," says Brother Jack.
In August 2008, the "Good Shepherd Food Pantry" started distributing food monthly from the back of a truck. That summer Brother Curt had another chance conversation with an African-American man and woman about the struggle to find a permanent location for the pantry. The man, a county commissioner, suggested Brother Curt come to the next commission meeting and make a presentation.
The county eventually approved leasing a well-maintained, centrally located, accessible house to the group for $25 a year plus utilities! In addition, the county installed a new ramp and fence, two community residents donated two freezers, and the Southern Baptists put in shelves. The pantry qualifies to receive government food, purchases some food from a food bank and receives donations.
Since May 3, 2009, the pantry building has been open two Saturdays a month for two hours each. As of February 2010, it is providing each of about 315 families with 25 pounds of food monthly—up from 220 families in 2009. Brother Curt is coordinator of food packing and volunteer scheduling. Brother Jack is pantry board president. (Father Mike had been treasurer.) And the congregations take turns furnishing volunteer help.
"It not only provides an opportunity to serve those who are hungry," Brother Curt says, "but it's also a chance for folks of different faith traditions and races to come together as a united front." The Catholics, he says, want to volunteer more but have to take their turn.
This Thanksgiving will be the first since the permanent pantry opened. Members of various denominations will gather on the preceding Sunday for the annual interfaith Thanksgiving service started by Father Mike and the Methodist minister in 2005. This year everyone has been asked to bring at least one can of food for the pantry or the money to buy one.
Brother Curt and Brother Jack agree that the food pantry effort is not only a reason to thank God, but another promising sign for the future of the mission and county.
This article originally appeared in the November 2009 Boost-A-Month Club newsletter.