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Local Volunteers Continue Support at Bethlehem Food Pantry Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

“For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore, I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’” – Deuteronomy 15:11

Broad smiles broke out when Susan Naslund and Theresa Erb arrived at the Bethlehem Food Pantry early last Saturday. “Good morning!” several of their guests shouted while making the motions of virtual hugging. “We weren’t sure if you would be here.”

In a time when everyone is uncertain about how to function during the COVID-19 outbreak, imagine what it is like to rely on the services of a food pantry, as well. Many of the pantry’s guests are among the most at-risk population for the virus, but they came out of isolation to get some of the basics like canned vegetables, dried pasta, and peanut butter. They also ventured out to be in the presence of others, to talk about their fears, and to feel less alone.

The Bethlehem Food Pantry is a part of the Good Shepherd Ministry Center in El Cajon. The Center was formed in the Fall of 2018 when Foothills UMC in La Mesa merged with First UMC of El Cajon. “Good Shepherd has given us at Foothills the opportunity to grow beyond our comfort zone — to go beyond the walls of our own sanctuary, farther and deeper in the community,” said Rev. Greg Batson. Indeed, since the merger, pantry volunteers have developed transformative relationships with the nearly 90 guests who visit each week.

Operating the Bethlehem Food Pantry right now has offered new challenges to the team of volunteers. Susan and Theresa, with the support of Foothills UMC pastors, Rev. Greg Batson and Rev. Lori Doyle, are committed to keeping the pantry open during the outbreak. They have created several solutions to continue to provide food while at the same time protecting their guests and their volunteers from becoming ill. For example, they are pre-bagging all food to minimize contact and they are observing social distancing when distributing the food.

When volunteers arrive at the Good Shepherd Ministry Center on Saturday mornings, there is typically a large crowd gathered – many more than is currently recommended by the Centers for Disease Control. Rev. Lori Doyle has marked the sidewalk so that this coming Saturday, pantry guests will know where to stand – keeping six feet between each person. 

Everyone has encountered the empty shelves in local grocery stores. That presents a difficult situation for stocking the pantry, too. Donations from church members have ceased because congregants cannot even purchase items for themselves, let alone for the pantry. Thankfully, the San Diego Food Bank announced this week that agency partners could come to their warehouse to choose cases of non-perishable items completely free of charge. What a gift!

Members of the Foothills UMC congregation have gleaned citrus from their own trees and have shared the fruit with the pantry which they are passing along to their guests. Their generosity is very appreciated.  

With the help of Foothills UMC, and with the help of others in the community, volunteers at the Bethlehem Food Pantry will continue to open wide their hands to the needy and to the poor in El Cajon. Only right now, those hands will be wearing latex gloves.