One day in 1975, a hungry family knocked on the door of the office of Prince of Peace Church, Woodland Hills, California and asked church administrator Margaret Shively if they had any groceries to share.
They didn’t. Margaret told the then rector, the Rev. Jess Taylor, “We need to keep a little food around here for people.” Fr. Jess asked parishioners to bring canned goods.
For the first few years, it was Margaret and her volunteers, caring for half a dozen families. In the mid-eighties, the ministry, now called the West Valley Food Pantry, recruited interfaith and ecumenical partners. The National Charity League, Inc. got on board. Soon the church was feeding thousands a month and delivering food to clients who couldn’t come to the food bank.
When COVID hit in 2020, people began rolling in from as far away as Bakersfield, Riverside, and Orange County. Now led by executive director Debbie Decker, supported by the rector of 33 years, the Rev. Canon Rand Reasoner, WVFP was caring for 14,000 people a month. The operation caught the attention of Jessie Gabriel, who represents Woodland Hills in the California Assembly and saw the difference the ministry made in his constituents’ lives. He arranged for it to be named a state non-profit of the year in 2020.
It was but a harbinger. I spoke to Jessie afterward. A thoughtful, 41-year-old student of theology and human nature, he quickly discerned that Debbie had a world-changing vision and heart. She will long remember the Saturday morning two years ago when the assemblyman called and said he’d arranged a $3.5 million state grant for a new community center, a longtime dream she had elaborated after she and board chair Herman Fischer took a quarantine roadtrip to borrow ideas from other food pantries.
With 150 in the audience, we broke ground this morning — after Jessie had announced another $1.5 million grant. When complete, WVFP will have corking new storage space, offices, a dining area, a drop-in center for a referral services, a kitchen for teaching healthy cooking, and a distribution hub.
I was along to welcome everyone and set the stage. My mustard seed metaphor — something small, Margaret’s generative spark of love, growing large — was deftly elaborated by subsequent speakers. An emeritus member of the food pantry board, founder Margaret was aboard and beaming. Another longtime WVFP supporter, Los Angeles Councilmember Bob Blumenfield, now guiding the expansion though the city planning process, picked up a shovel, as did newly elected county supervisor Lindsey Horvath, who eloquently pledged support.
It was a joy to see POP stalwarts the Rev. Steve Dean, the Rev. George Packer (recovering nicely from back surgery in November), and, freshly ordained, the Rev. Brian Tucker. As our minister of ceremonies, Debbie, a former colleague at St. Paul’s Commons, Echo Park, led us at we gave thanks for the generosity of the Smart & Final Charitable Foundation, the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, and dozens of volunteers, donors, and staff. And yet it was hard not to see Margaret and Debbie (the photo above shows her standing ovation), along with Frs. Jess and Rand, as primis inter pares of this magnificent public-private-heavenly partnership. Thanks be to God for their mighty gospel four.