The Food Share ministry at All Saints Church in Riverside is so much more than just a place for “James” to receive free fresh vegetables, fruits and dairy products on Thursday mornings, no questions asked.
For 49-year-old James, who is homeless, the church and its volunteers represent a lifeline, a place of welcome, comfort and care — and no judgment. “This is one of the last decent places around,” says James, who arrives by bicycle about 7:30 a.m., as nearly 150 cars began to line both sides of Terracina Drive in anticipation of the ministry’s 9 a.m. opening.
Life’s hard knocks forced him into homelessness a few years ago, James told the Episcopal News. “I got hurt at work,” he recalled. ‘My parents were dead. I was alone. I was living in my recreational vehicle awhile. Then it broke down and caught on fire.”
Turning to Andrea Briggs, the church’s minister for community engagement, he wonders if there are eggs or cheese available, whatever he can carry with him on the bike.
Immediately, she offers the contents of a food box.
“We’re not asking any questions, or making anyone fill out forms, or show identification or any of those things,” Briggs said. “I’m expecting that the people who come to the church for food are getting kicked around in a lot of places and we just aren’t going to do that.”
Briggs organizes and oversees dozens of volunteers who weekly pick up, transport, unload and offer contactless distribution of more than 600 boxes of fresh food as well as other donated items.
One such volunteer is Penny Ellien, a second-generation All Saints altar guild director and a church member since 1957, who this particular day serves as a driver, sorter, re-boxer, and distributor. She parks a white pickup truck in the church lot, its bed loaded with boxes of eggs, cheese, chicken, apples and milk. Immediately, volunteer workers climb aboard and begin handing the boxes to others who stack them on the ground.
They work quickly, adeptly, keenly aware of the increasing number of cars and that some guests wait several hours to receive much-needed food.
For Ellien, Briggs, and others, the parking lot gatherings are an added way of exercising faith in the time of pandemic. Until recently, the congregation, like many others in the Diocese of Los Angeles, had not met for in-person worship.
“From the very beginning, the fact that All Saints Church could get on this parking lot and be together when we haven’t been together since March, and do it in a healthy way, was so good for our community. It’s such a joy,” Briggs said.
“I think about Food Share as one of our sacramental acts, that the people of All Saints are able to offer to people in cars something they so very badly need,” Briggs added. “There is a communication of the grace of God in that act, that we want to stand as the presence of God for them and to remind them that they, too, are in the presence of God.”
Rob Lennox, a long-time church member, has been involved since the ministry launched in June. He has added wooden sideboards to the bed of his 1992 Dodge four-wheel drive three-quarter-ton diesel pickup to accommodate as many boxes each pick-up as possible.
“If we can do this, I think we should, to help people,” said Lennox, a retired UC-Riverside air pollution researcher. “And, besides, we have a good time.”
Each person in each car has a story, unspoken or not. “The people come through in all different circumstances,” Lennox said. “Some are in nice cars, and you figure they lost their jobs. Some, we can see, are living in their cars. And, we have walk-ups. I think we’re one of the only, if not the only, place that takes walk-ups and, in that case, we can just open a box and they take what they want.”
The pandemic and the desire to help the community sparked the ministry. “It is an important bridge, especially in this time of economic hardship — to be able to help people get food,” Lennox added. “We have farmers growing all kinds of stuff. We have people needing all kinds of stuff, and fortunately, there is a bridge in-between and we’re part of that bridge.”
By 9 a.m., the boxes are stacked and assembled, tables are loaded with bread, croissants, buns, and other surprise giveaways. This particular day, those giveaways include bars of soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste, baby wipes, potato chips and even Halloween trick-or-treat candy.
The Rev. Canon Kelli Grace Kurtz, rector of All Saints, wearing a baseball cap and bright yellow security vest, stands in the center of Terracina Drive, and begins to direct cars — a few at a time — into the parking lot.
There are stops and starts at each of four stations, beginning with Jerry Koury, a retired banker, who offers personal greetings and a quick check-in: “Great to see you. How’s your wife? Tell her I said hello.”
For another vehicle occupant, who was having a challenging day, he pauses and listens with concern. Eventually, he asks: “How many families today? What do you need? Fresh produce? Dairy?”
Some vehicles carry members of several families. Other guests receive and deliver food for neighbors and friends.
For each box of fresh produce needed Koury sticks a blue piece of tape to the car roof. For each box of dairy products wanted, he adds a piece of white tape before sending the vehicle on to the second station with a hearty: “God bless you! See you next week!”
To another, he calls out cheerful greetings of: “Good Morning, my friend!” and “Great to see you today!”
As the cars move through the stations, their occupants pop the trunks or direct box-carrying volunteers to load them into back seats.
At a fourth station — once trunks and back seats are full —loaves of bread, along with toothbrushes and toothpaste, bars of soap, potato chip snacks and Halloween candy are given away with a cheery “Trick or treat.” The pieces of blue and white tape are removed and, with a shout, a volunteer alerts Kurtz and her son Matthew, who are directing traffic: “Car coming out!”
The bulk of the food is distributed through the Inland Harvest Food Bank, while bread and other baked goods are donated by local grocery stores.
Briggs admittedly “scrounges around all over the place,” and says she is already planning ahead, seeking donations of at least one hundred frozen turkeys for Thanksgiving and another hundred for Christmas meals for guests.
“This is an opportunity to notice how blessed we are and to be able to be a blessing,” she says.
And will the ministry continue post-pandemic?
Briggs isn’t so sure. She wants to continue to incorporate the volunteer spirit sparked by the pandemic response.
“We started in June with just 60 boxes,” she recalled. “I thought we’d have a small program, that we’d maybe go through September, and here we are.
“What will happen remains to be seen. I want to go from here to ‘why do these people not have food?’
“I get great joy from being in the parking lot,” she added. “But not at the expense of more than a hundred cars of people in desperate straits. I want to know what Riverside’s going to do about it and to invite All Saints to participate in whatever that is. What issue is causing folks to stay in poverty, that they are willing to be in line for a couple of hours to get a box of food? It’s a high price. So, who are they, and where are they coming from, and how can we make that stop?”