It’s a community market, there is the hubbub of noise, gathering giggling children who warm up with cups of hot chocolate. The elderly are being helped with their shopping bags. The middle schoolers are talking about the school dance last night. Tables are in the middle of the market, an easy gathering place for people to visit, to catch up, to plan for the week ahead. Not all are in a joyous temperament — it’s early on a Saturday morning, it’s cold and even though the snow has melted, the wind has picked up. It has been a long week for some. There are those who are tired and the week ahead seems a bit daunting.
“Let us pray,” calls Vincent Noth, executive director of the Riverwest Food Pantry. “Our Father who art in heaven …”
The market scene could be in any little village, a small town in New England or in Europe. Except it’s not a market like you’re thinking of and we are inside. The people have come because for quiet reasons unknown to those of us helping today, they are hungry. Or they know that in the week ahead, they will be hungry.
Several Nashotah House seminarians, spouses, and youth are in the large basement of St. Casimir’s Catholic Church in downtown Milwaukee. We are here to help and to do what we need to do.
Each Saturday, year-round, the Riverwest Food Pantry opens its doors to those in need, those who are food insecure. Mr. Noth says, “Many of us have a stereotype of those who are in need of food. but food insecurity is a more persistent problem. In Milwaukee’s Riverwest and Harambee neighborhoods, where 35% to 40% of residents live at or below the poverty level. There can be a variety of people who can be in need — construction workers who are out of work because of the season, and need a bit of help to get through to when work picks up, or people who are fixed incomes, who are saving money so their kids can pay for classes at college.”
Why work at a food pantry on a cold Saturday morning in Lent? Because doing so is often about ministry of presence — “I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling” (1 Cor. 2:3).
Tony Bleything, priest at Christ Redeemer in Milwaukee says, “In other words, being a faithful presence means truly incarnating God’s reconciling love to our neighbors. Not just talking about God’s reconciling love to our neighbors. Through our missional communities, we hope to incarnate this love to those around us.”
There is a large crowd today because it’s the end of the month, and some people are just simply out of money until they get paid next week. This food pantry is different than pantries where I’ve helped before — the people choose food from shelves instead of receiving prepacked bags or boxes that include food they might not eat.
“The design of food pantries is changing across the country,” says Shannon Seegers, coordinator at Riverwest Food Pantry. “People have been visited in their homes and it’s been noticed they might have a dozen cans of beans but nothing else. When they receive prepacked boxes or bags, items that they may not be able to eat for medical reasons will often unintentionally be included. Here at Riverwest Food Pantry, we give client-choice. The people may choose for themselves, this gives them dignity, and those helping at the shelves can assist, teach a bit of nutrition, and advise clients what is healthy and good for them and their families.”
Why will we be returning to the Food Pantry? As Christians studying at Nashotah House, we are taught that God calls us to serve. He comes with us as we come alongside others, joining them in their lives even if only for a few hours or only to say, “May I help you?” This Lent, we consider more fully how we may become more of a part of their lives and eachother’s lives as we serve Him.
Other services include assistance with clothing, medical needs, and financial counseling.
Photos courtesy Riverwest Food Pantry located at Bremen and Clarke Streets, Milwaukee.