“Holy ground” is not a term you would normally imagine when viewing a small, institutional, beige room, dotted with a few card tables and bakers’ shelving. But there isn’t a better way to exemplify the food bank located at St. John the Baptist Church in Ypsilanti. It is truly holy ground. “I can’t tell you how much I feel God here,” exudes Sarah Scholl, food bank coordinator. “I know it’s him because it all feels good. Even when things get crazy there is something that comes along that says, ‘I got this,’ and I know it’s the Spirit. When we do prayer I get a little electric charge about 95 percent of the time.”
Sarah’s sensitivity to the needs of the poor comes from first-hand experience. “We lived in a Salvation Army for a bit when I was a little kid. There used to be a cereal with peanuts and I remember rancid peanuts with sour milk. That taste has never left. And then when I had small children and lived in Texas, we received food boxes. I work in the pantry as a way to pay back. I can’t take anything if I am not giving anything.”
Sarah wears her compassion like a scarf draped around her neck. She speaks of a client who does not have any electrical power and uses a bike for transportation. “He is a very sweet guy. For him we look for things that don’t need power to prepare. The year we gave him gloves and a scarf, he thought it was a treasure. Often, someone will come in tears needing this service and they ask you for one more thing and you end up having several things that will make their life better. That’s when I thank God for sending them and for my ability to be here. Many won’t leave until they hug you. The last few months I’ve been the one who stands at the door and says ‘God bless you. Have a good night.’ Most of them light up and that’s such an amazing grace.”
Grace is something Sarah feels an abundance of these days. Raised Episcopalian, she always felt a spiritual connection, but was drawn to the Catholic Church because “The Episcopalians were becoming too secular for me. On some things you have to follow what is real.” Sarah and her husband went through the RCIA process and were received into the Church in 2006. Since then she has received a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from Siena Heights. Sarah is now in a spiritual direction program, and her husband is in the diaconate formation program. “It has been a wild and crazy ride. I have had a blast being part of the Catholic Church. I love that it is so full of Christ.”
The food bank is not new to St. John’s, but the organization has been revamped. In 2007, Sarah, perplexed at the inaccessibility of the food bank, began to ask questions, digging for a way to provide more accessibility to the clientele. In 2008, Sarah, knowing the current coordinator was resigning, invited others interested to join her in a brainstorming session on how to improve services. She was joined by two other women, one of whom is Shirley Green, co-coordinator, who remains as dedicated to the mission as Sarah.
“We opened on Holy Thursday in 2008 and no one came. We literally sent a man out with a sign that read ‘Do You Want Food?’ The pantry that had been here was not really giving out food so it had lost its credibility. I think the next week, we got five people. We had to completely rebuild the program.” Together, and over time, they formulated a well-functioning system.
Today, the food bank serves as many as 40 families on a weekly basis, which can represent more than 120 people. Families must present valid Washtenaw County ID, and are allowed to visit the food bank once a month. A card catalogue on site tracks when food is picked up to ensure the regulation of distribution. Each family receives up to three bags of food, depending on what is in stock at the time. One bag will contain canned goods and side dishes, a second bag produce and, if available, a third bag has meat.
What is available depends partially on food donations from the parish, but mostly on what Food Gatherers, Washtenaw County’s primary food bank, has to offer. This food must be purchased. Each year, Sarah applies for a grant that comes directly from Food Gatherers and indirectly from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). The parish supplements what the grant does not cover. “You order from Food Gatherers and if you order USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] or program foods, they will deliver. They deliver on Thursday and we distribute Thursday night. Night was a very specific choice because I have known too many people with part- time jobs who can’t get here in the daytime. We are open one evening a week and for one hour from 6:30 to 7:30. When the doors open, clients are invited to come in and take a seat. Most food banks make them wait outside.”
Sarah currently works with about 20 other volunteers to make the St. John Food Bank a success. Three or four volunteers come in early Thursday afternoon to unload the food delivery, and another crew will bag the food between 4:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. An additional 12 volunteers are available during the distribution hour to gather the bags and carry them for the clients. Shirley Green covers Thursday afternoon, handling paperwork and overseeing the volunteers, while Sarah comes in later. “When people ask me, ‘How does the pantry run?’ I tell them God does his thing. These volunteers are so wonderful. He wants us feeding his sheep. If we don’t feed them physically, we can’t feed them spiritually. When you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, how do you hear his voice?
“We pray before we start every week. In prayer, we ask that they see Christ in us and we see Christ in them. To be Christ for them. People need to know that we love them as they are or at least feel it,” she says. And feel it they must. A prayer box is available for any of the clients to submit their intentions. Prayers range from the usual plea for a job, to the alcoholic struggling for recovery or the parent requesting prayers for a child battling cancer. “You don’t get to see this side of people generally, but this situation opens the spiritual door. We divvy up the prayer cards and the volunteers take them home to pray for them and their specific needs,” she says.
When asked what she hopes her children and grandchildren have learned from her experiences, Sarah, without hesitation, says, “Love. Love of God. Love of self. Love of neighbor. And that God never fails.” Her love of God exuberantly spills from her demeanor. As for her feelings regarding the food pantry, her face lights up like the fireworks on the Fourth of July. “This is my baby. It is very loved. God graces me to be here,” she says.