February 27, 2015

Annunciation Parish food pantry focuses on people while serving more

Jennifer Bailey, a member of Annunciation Parish in Brazil, helps a client of the parish’s food pantry on Feb. 3. The pantry, which is operated by a conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul based in the parish, serves more than 200 households per month. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Jennifer Bailey, a member of Annunciation Parish in Brazil, helps a client of the parish’s food pantry on Feb. 3. The pantry, which is operated by a conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul based in the parish, serves more than 200 households per month. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

BRAZIL—Visit Annunciation Parish in Brazil on Tuesday around lunchtime and you’ll see a group of members of the Terre Haute Deanery faith community offering a wide variety of food items to a steady stream of people in need.

Over the course of a month, between 200 and 250 families receive assistance from the parish’s food pantry. A year ago, that number was between 20 and 25.

What’s changed is that a conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul has been established at Annunciation Parish. This brought better organization to the parish’s charitable efforts, and inspired more members to lend a hand.

“Conference” is the title that the international Society of St. Vincent de Paul gives to its parish-level organizations.

“It certainly warms my heart,” said Father John Hollowell, Annunciation’s pastor. “I’m proud of the effort that everybody is giving, and in seeing all of the people that we’re able to help.”

Those numbers might continue to increase in the future because of a $20,000 grant the conference was awarded last December by the Walmart Foundation. It was one of 75 food pantries across the country to receive grants from the foundation.

Part of it will be used to create a strategic plan for the parish’s conference that would investigate additional ways to help the poor and to ensure its ministry continues in the future, Father Hollowell said.

“A lot of times, what you see with these efforts is one individual person sort of willing it to happen,” he said. “Then, when that person gets sick or can’t do it anymore or burns out, the mission dies. Putting a strategic plan in place … is a great way to continue to make sure that this is a team effort, and everybody is moving in the same direction.”

Part of that direction for Father Hollowell is that the focus of the charitable ministry in the parish is on the people who receive it, not simply helping as many people as possible.

“The primary thing is not to get as much bread to the masses as possible,” he said. “The primary thing is the interaction between people.”

That interaction has certainly helped Annunciation parishioner Natalie Schonk, who helps oversee distribution of food on Tuesdays.

“These people think that we’re helping them,” Schonk said. “But, really, they’re helping me so much more. It’s the joy and happiness of seeing Jesus in each and every person. You form friendships with people that you wouldn’t normally know. You learn people’s stories and names.”

Jennifer Bailey brings four of her children whom she homeschools to volunteer at the food pantry each Tuesday. Like Schonk, she sees the service that she and her family give as benefiting them as much as anyone else.

“It teaches [my children] how to be better Catholics and help care for others in need, how to treat others with respect and see the dignity in everybody,” said Bailey, a member of Annunciation Parish. “It’s my favorite part of the week. My husband usually comes during his lunch break and helps. It’s something that we’ve been able to do as a family.”

The closeness the Baileys experience as a family in helping people in need is shared by many of the pantry’s clients, who share a lunch together that volunteer staff members prepare each week with food that the pantry has in overabundance.

“It’s a really nice opportunity for people to socialize,” said pantry volunteer Annette Clawson, a member of Annunciation Parish. “A lot of this mission isn’t just about the food. … It’s about hospitality.

“Some are older and live alone. They’re lonely and don’t have family. They sit down, have lunch and talk. And it gives us a chance to interact with them more and find out more about their stories.”

They’ve heard the stories of pantry clients Steve and Susan, a married couple in Brazil who are retired senior citizens.

“It’s been very helpful,” said Steve. “We’re both on social security. That’s our basic income. So this helps out quite a bit. It’s been very rewarding for us. It’s nice to see the volunteers, especially the young kids eager to help.”

The number of people in need in and around Brazil hasn’t increased greatly over the past year, said Father Hollowell. Rural poverty might not be as well-known as its urban counterpart, he said, but it still affects the lives of many hidden people.

“Rural poverty is a huge thing. It’s a reality,” he said. “I think a lot of people assume that all poor people live downtown in a big city. But anytime you turn off of a main thoroughfare out in the country, you’re going to really quickly hit a lot of poverty.”

In encouraging his parishioners to start a Society of St. Vincent de Paul conference, Father Hollowell was convinced that the organization would help the parish reach out to the poor like Steve and Susan with the Catholic approach to charity that Pope Francis has encouraged the faithful to embrace since his election nearly two years ago.

“[The Society] stresses that parishioners go out and meet the poor,” Father Hollowell said. “That’s what Pope Francis is calling us to.

“It has all the benefits of serving the poor. But it also has the benefit of helping our people develop the confidence to know how to safely go out to the margins, like Pope Francis is saying.”

This person-centered approach to charitable outreach, Father Hollowell said, is rooted in the example given by Christ and aimed at helping both the receivers and givers of assistance.

“[Jesus] could feed the world with one flick of his wrist,” Father Hollowell said. “But he has deigned to trust us with that mission. He knows that it’s for our own sake to be involved with that mission.

“It’s a grace for us, and it changes us when we are a part of that. That does make Catholic charity unique.” †

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