The Food Pantry takes place right in the center of St. Gregory's sanctuary.
I came here the first time to get food. I was living in the Tenderloin in a studio with my partner: he was very sick with HIV, and I have Hepatitis C, so neither of us could work.
But I thought, I have a lot to be grateful for. I’m still alive. I can’t stand up and lift things, but I can find some way to help out. It makes me feel more human.
The food is wonderful, but really I love the fellowship. We’re like a team, we work together: if one person is late, or sick, we fill in, and when someone’s having a hard time we take care of each other.
Here, I feel accepted as me. I give out bags at the door, and I talk with everyone who comes to the pantry. I get to learn bits and piece of different languages, and when I say hi, it’s like I’m not just giving food but giving of myself. You know, I may not be the happiest person alive. But I’m grateful I’m here. And I have something to give.
Two years ago, I saw a picture of The Food Pantry, and it said volunteers could just show up. I got to the church early and saw this woman standing next to a giant stack of bread, unloading loaves. I couldn’t even see all of her, but she called out, “Come on in, and give me a hand!”
I worked at the phone company for 27 years. And when I retired I wanted to find some way to give back the blessings I’ve received. Now on Fridays I do whatever needs doing. And then during the week I work on getting donations for the pantry and recruiting more volunteers.I think there’s more than one way to get to heaven, as long as you’re grateful for what you have and willing to share.
I just want to say thank you. I come here and it is beautiful. It is a church for all people, the volunteers and the people in line. I have so much love, because you so love to me and my people, the Russian people.
Each week when I worked outside, greeting and translating, I’d see a line of more than six hundred people, stretching almost a half mile from the food pantry entrance to the top of the hill and back down.
People complained to me the line was too long, the weather too humid, their peers cut in front of them and there’d be nothing left by the time they reached the church.
In spite of all the complaints, the same individuals would come out later with two or more full bags of groceries, their faces brightened with smiles. They’d bow their heads and shake my hands and express their gratitude, and say how the time spent waiting in line was well worth.
There are moments at the pantry when I come up for air and realize how very happy I am to be there. I love the experience of working hard to set up for the day then sitting down together for a meal. There we are, all so different, and all the same, being fed by this small miracle.
This is not just a food place for me, it’s a spiritual place. I came for food, and they started asking me to help.We’re all are so different, but we elevate ourselves a bit just by being with each other. I mean, we’re not going to sainthood here, we’re just on a path.
It’s a blessing to be in this body, and to do something if I can. People at the pantry sometimes drive me insane, they push, they fight, I think oh my God, why am I here? I have no idea, but it’s something I have to contemplate.
I don’t know where my story’s going to end, or what I’m doing this for. But it fills my heart. Some people are supposed to be parents, some politicians, I’m supposed to be this — I don’t know what it’s called, but it’s what I am meant for.
I remember looking at the altar the first day I volunteered and seeing it covered in junk food — snacks for the volunteers, nasty stuff. And I thought, “These people need a good meal if they’re going to work all day.” The next week I cooked lunch for the volunteers. It was a big pot of pinto beans, the kind of food my mother would cook on Mondays when I was a kid. I seasoned them up well and put them out on the altar with a bunch of bowls and spoons. I don’t remember when we started putting tables and chairs out for lunch, but now everyone sits down together, after we set up and before we open. I love fixing lunch on Fridays.
For a long time, Sara and I would take an hour away from St. Gregory’s pantry and head up the hill to our sister pantry in the Potrero Hill housing projects. We helped deliver bags of groceries to elderly people who couldn’t make it down to the pantry themselves.
One of the regulars was an old woman who was deaf, and wouldn’t be able to hear us knocking at the door. But she knew when we were supposed to come, so she would leave her door unlocked. We’d knock anyway, just in case, let ourselves in and place her groceries on the counter, then let ourselves out.
It always felt like we were breaking in to her house—but like reverse thieves, we were there to leave something, not take stuff. It also felt a little like we were entering a sanctuary; someplace forbidden we weren’t supposed to be.
Week after week we broke into this nice lady’s house and left groceries for her. Then one day, knocking as usual, and opening the door to let myself in, I was surprised to see her standing at the sink, washing some vegetables. She hadn’t heard me, but as the door opened and let in light, she turned to look at me. I smiled sheepishly, put the groceries on the kitchen table, and she, beaming, said triumphantly, “I caught you at last!”
Original volunteer Chris Viola and operations director Michael Reid.
I was here and started helping out the very first day the pantry opened. I remember there were just some little boxes of food around the altar—it was so small then. We were outside waving and calling to people on the street, telling them to come in. That’s it, that’s the whole spirit of The Food Pantry: “Glad to have you, come on in.”
Even when I was living under the bridge, I’d wake up early to get here by 7AM: it made my week. And now, I can be having a bad day, but I’ll start laughing about things I remember.
Like, why are those watermelons running away down the street? Back at the beginning, sometimes the truck would back up the wrong way and all the food would break out…we’d be chasing potatoes and watermelons down the hill.
Or one time when we had a whole huge bin filled with plums and a lot of them were bad, and Nirmala and I were sorting them. I looked up, and all I could see was Nirmala upside down in the bin, with her legs sticking out, screeching “Chris, help, I’m going under!”
Another time I didn’t even look at Jenny when I was walking by, but I tossed her a cabbage over my shoulder, and she caught it and said, “Sweeeeet!”
Nirmala, Aida, Sara-—you look in their eyes, you get a warmth. Rudy, he’s been breaking down boxes forever, I go out back and tease him. Matt, he’s had some rough times, but he’s a hard worker. All the people here, you look at them, you get love. I don’t use that term lightly, but it’s love. They understand who you are.
In November 2003, of all things, I wound up handing out groceries at a church. They were only serving about 150 people then. I was waiting to get food and asked to help, really didn’t want to, but would have felt cheap refusing. I only planned to be there for a couple weeks anyway.
I wound up in charge of The Food Pantry. Now I run the Friday operations and I’m on the board. Sometimes I put in ten or fifteen hours even before Friday rolls around, to make sure everything’s in place and nothing goes wrong. Of course something always goes wrong—that’s the nature of the beast. Then it’s all about think on your feet and think fast.
Organizationally, we’ve got it pretty much down to a fine art now. We have 1500 people registered and serve up to 650 a week. But it doesn’t have the cattle-call feel of some other pantries. Some people get off on abusing other folks, but what we do at St. Gregory’s is the exact opposite. I feel you’re dealing with people who are beaten down enough, there should be places that build them up. When people come they’re often very angry, or ashamed to be here, or stressed. It’s important to have a laugh with them. You can be firm and fair, and keep everyone feeling safe. You ask them to do things, don’t yell and scream, and you can get a lot of people wanting to be part of it.
I’ve seen pantries spring up all over the country inspired by our model, and I’ve learned many things about myself. I was a drug addict for ten years. Most of the people I knew then are dead, or doing life in prison. We had a kid at the pantry recently I hadn’t seen for years, he just got out of prison and was looking for help. When I talk to people like that I want to tell them how if you’re ready there are things you can do to make a difference.
I used to come to The Food Pantry starting when I was ten years old. I was the bread girl. When the pantry was first starting, it was chaotic: I was just this little kid trying not to get pushed over by grownups. I learned to be more assertive, like, “Dude, you shouldn’t be taking extra bread.” It was hard: but it was so great to realize, wow, I’m just a kid, but I’ve got a part it making this thing happen.
When I ran the Bridge of Books Foundation, I always loved coming to The Food Pantry and giving out free books to the kids. It warmed my heart every time I’d hear “the book lady is here” and see the kids running over. I think my all-time favorite day was the day we gave out brand-new, just-released Harry Potter books. But my most vivid memory is seeing a man in a bottled-water delivery uniform rushing in at the end of the day to get food for his family—obviously trying to just make ends meet. I thought then, and think now, this isn’t the way the world is supposed to be. Thank goodness for The Food Pantry.
I’ve been on both ends of the pantry — it helped me out so much when I was out of work. It makes me cry to remember how they gave me a huge box of food, and I was so thankful I could feed my kids. Then I said, can I help? I was welcomed equally as a person who got food and a person who gives. Now when I see other people with kids in line, I feel, ‘I know what it’s like,’ and I’m just so grateful.<br><br>