FORT SMITH – Diaconate candidates Brad Brown and Jaime Flores found a way to serve even with pandemic constraints by opening a food pantry at St. Boniface Church in Fort Smith.
“As part of our pastoral formation, Jaime and I worked down in (Riverview) Hope Campus with the homeless and took the Eucharist to the sick and shut-ins,” said Brown, who along with Flores will be ordained deacons in June 2022. “When the pandemic hit everything was shut down, and we were trying to see what we could do within the confines of the pandemic, and the Holy Spirit hit Jaime over the head.”
As several members of the parish became infected with COVID-19, Flores was moved to do more to help them. In one family, the father lost his job and his wife and small children were quarantined and couldn’t go out to get food.
“A couple of our brothers from the community got together to deliver a food basket,” Flores said. “When this happened, I thought of the Gospel images of Jesus seeing people struggling, especially with the multiplication of the bread and fish, and how he told the apostles to go and feed them. My heart was set on fire, and I talked about starting a pantry with Father Mario (Jacobo, pastor) and Brad.”
The pantry seemed like a natural fit for Brown, who had retired from Kraft Foods after 37 years, and Flores, who works as the parish’s maintenance man.
Father Jacobo sees the Holy Spirit acting in his parish.
“He knows his people and local community are suffering and that people of good will, especially Jaime and Brad, have the desire to help,” the pastor said. “Our community is very generous, and our little food pantry is full, but we will need to continue to build it.”
The parish plans to bless the pantry’s opening Oct. 17. It will be open on certain Saturdays and every weekday from 10 a.m.-noon. Donations can be brought to the church or the parish office.
“This past November we decided to open up our Thanksgiving dinner to people in the larger community, inviting them to come in,” Father Jacobo said. “Some of our guests said they had been here so many years, and no one from our parish had ever approached them. We are reaching out because as a church we are responsible for all in our community. One volunteer said he was almost crying.”
The church will advertise the new pantry throughout the area.
The Fort Smith Catholic community is reaching out to the hungry in other ways too. Two miles away, Christ the King Church has also opened a food pantry July 11. In August, they distributed 47 bags with 21 meals in each bag.
“That means we gave out 987 meals in August,” Katie Kratzberg, advancement director, said.
Sacred Heart of Mary Church in Barling visits Riverview Hope Campus once a month to cook a meal for homeless people.
At Immaculate Conception Church, Deacon Greg Pair manages St. Anne Society, an area-wide Catholic outreach program, which operates out of Hope Campus twice weekly. Immaculate Conception has been sharing their food donations with the pantries at St. Boniface and Christ the King churches.
Food isn’t their only concern. St. Anne Society has a personal care pantry, St. Veronica’s Closet, at Hope Campus.
“We’re going to be seeing a lot of people on the streets if things don’t change,” Pair said. “Landlords are evicting people. To receive eviction protection, tenants need to get a letter from their former employer saying they lost their jobs due to the virus, to present to the judge. We try to help people navigate the system. Because we were closed a few months during the pandemic, we had built up our funds. We spent $50,000 keeping people in their homes. If they got evicted anyway, we would help them with deposits and first month’s rent in a new apartment.”
Most utility companies have suspended shutoffs for non-payment, but Pair expects this will create additional problems for tenants and homeowners who are in arrears.
“This month, I ran out of money to help people in the first two days,” he said. “Churches have been hard pressed because, if people aren’t coming into church and putting money into the box, they don’t think about the fact that we are still trying to help.”
With so many pandemic-related challenges, it is easy for the churches to get discouraged, but that’s where faith comes in, according to Father Jacobo.
“We are leaving it up to God and hope there are many people with hearts for the poor,” he said.
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