KIf you’ve read my book Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers, you will remember MANNA (Many Angels Needed Now and Always) as the ministry with the leadership team and Pillars of Peace. I visited them in June to see their new way of doing Ministry in the age of coronavirus. Note that "volunteer" in this context includes people who are food insecure and people who are food secure.
This is amazing, I think, as I slip into the sanctuary at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul (Episcopal) in Boston. It is so quiet. Seven round tables are 12 to 15 feet apart, each with two chairs. A cart with juice, coffee, and orange quarters sits at the doorway, occasionally the volunteers move around to refill people’s cups. The skylight, wisps of windows, and lighting together make a soft, calm space. One man cleans out his backpack, another sleeps, still another is writing vigorously. I whisper to the volunteers, afraid of disturbing the peace.
The last time I visited MANNA, one of the church-based meal programs in my book Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers, there were 100 eaters crammed in an echoing basement social hall. One of the remarkable images was of a screaming fight, calmed by the volunteers who play the role of Pillars of Peace. This couldn’t be more different.
To deal with the risk of the coronavirus, the MANNA team has adjusted almost everything about their Monday lunch program. Eaters now sit, two to a table, in three different rooms, including the newly renovated, and pew-less sanctuary. Masks and hand-sanitizer are handed out at the door. The bathroom is sterilized twice while I visit. Lunch is scooped into take-out bins and delivered to each person from a cart by gloved, masked volunteers. Breakfast is in a bag at the front door in the morning, bagged sandwiches are offered in the afternoon.
While I’m chatting with a young writer at my table a tall bearded white man comes into the sanctuary. He is unmasked and waving his arms.
“Do I know any body here? Do I know anybody?”
One of the volunteers, standing in the doorway, calls the hollerer by name and asks if he likes his new housing. “Does it feel like home yet?”
The man ignores the attempt at redirection. “Does anybody come from Medford” he calls again into the room.
The volunteer tries again “Have you decorated your new space?”
The man looks him in the eye and then heads out the door. We all watch as he argues with the volunteers outside, and then takes a bag of breakfast with him.
It is quiet again.
Downstairs is a little less hushed. There is a game of cards with a third person added, but the masked players are still keeping distant from each other. The lead volunteers at each station (the front door, the entrance to each of the three rooms, and the kitchen) have walkie-talkies that creates an occasional electric sound. “We are so spread out,” Jennifer McCracken, the priest of the congregation, explains. “We were needing to run up and down the stairs to find out what was happening.”
The financial costs of the program revisions are high. What was once Monday lunch is now breakfast and lunch, and on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. Breakfast is purchased from a nearby restaurant responding to their challenge of being closed. Many other meals in the city have shut-down, so these meals are important, especially to the people without housing.
As I visit, I start to see how the program is, in many ways, the same as it always was. An indoor suburban congregation brought the meal, MANNA volunteers, some food secure, some food insecure, serve it. Almost everyone who enters is called by name. There is a sense of plenty when the woman at my table asks apologetically for a third cup of coffee the answer is “of course”. The volunteer remembers that she uses two sugars and plenty of cream.
Clean-up is a community affair, everyone cleaning tables and chairs, although now they don’t need to fold them up and out of the way as the building is not used for other programs. People go out quietly again, one last story, one last prayer. A place of respite in a world of chaos.
For my organized thoughts, see my book Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers: Developing Relational Food Ministries. In this spot are thoughts that appear for a moment--about food programs, mission, church, building community, writing, and whatever else pops into my head.