Ohio church turns nativity stable into little free pantry
On the first Sunday of Advent an Ohio congregation blessed its Christmas nativity and set it outside to benefit its neighbors. Instead of statues of Mary, Joseph and the animals, they filled the frame of the six-foot stable with nonperishable food and toiletries so people can take what they need.
Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ, in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood, came up with the idea of the little free pantry as one way it can continue its food ministry without access to its indoor space.
“The closure of our food pantry came with many tears, knowing how much that support is needed, and knowing our faith is best expressed in community,” said Pilgrim pastor, the Rev. Kelly Burd. “When we gather around a table for Holy Communion, we celebrate the fulfillment of both physical and spiritual nourishment, saying ‘these are the gifts of God for the people of God.’ What better way to celebrate the birth of Jesus than to fill this symbolic birthplace with food?”
The church’s long-established food pantry, staffed primarily by retired volunteers, closed in March because of COVID-19 after Pilgrim couldn’t come up with a safe way to continue the necessary intake process. The church pantry usually feeds more than 2500 households in the area every year, Burd said, so members looked for other ways to get food to the community.
“We began to ask how we might reimagine many of our ministries and take them ‘out’ of the building somehow,” Burd said. Pilgrim spent several thousand dollars in April to purchase gift cards from a local supermarket. They were mailed to regular food pantry visitors, along with a letter of concern to tell them where they could find other assistance. The congregation then expanded its community garden and partnered with a local neighborhood center, Merrick House, to distribute more than 900 pounds of the garden’s fresh produce this summer and fall.
As cold weather approached and COVID-19 rates surged in Ohio, the church came up with the idea of a little free pantry. The focus then turned to the stable, a central feature in Pilgrim’s Christmas Eve worship. It’s always been used indoors as a place for children to place items symbolizing the Christmas story: a prophet’s scroll, stuffed farm animals, the gifts of the magi, and finally, the baby Jesus.
“With Advent decorations in mind, we agreed to convert the stable to a pantry, since people recognize it as a primary symbol for Christ’s birth, and for a season of faith and hope,” Burd said. “Outside the church, it fills a much more powerful, pragmatic and meaningful role than decorating our otherwise empty sanctuary. It takes on new life and purpose, and people might be inspired by seeing it used in this way.”
So at noon on Nov. 29, the nativity went up on Pilgrim’s front lawn, filled with canned food and items people need every day. The church asked God to bless the bounty, with people wearing masks and physically distancing. Because of the pandemic the sanctuary has remained closed. The congregation has moved services outdoors and also invested in the people and technology to make worship available online.
“If we can livestream worship and bring the church into people’s homes, we can move this symbolic stable outdoors and fill it with food and hope,” Burd said. “We know this is a financially tough time for many, and though this action doesn’t solve the long-term problem of poverty or hunger, it helps us to love and support our neighbors in tangible ways.”
That tangible support will also be evident on Christmas Eve, as part of that evening’s worship. Following a 7 p.m. candlelight service, livestreamed from the sanctuary with a slideshow of the congregants holding candles, worship will move outdoors. The community is invited to gather at 8 p.m. on the front lawn among the lighted Christmas trees, in a brief safe way, for prayer. Attendees will also be invited to contribute to the nativity at that time.
Since the church isn’t staffed as usual because of COVID-19, Burd said, a few people have wondered about how the pantry can be supervised. “How do we know someone won’t show up and take everything?”
Her response, “We don’t know. We’re going to release it to the community with faith that some will give, and some will take, and it will help people meet their needs.”
While she noted the whole stable and all the containers could disappear, Burd said, the offering is a “leap of faith and expression of love.”
“If it’s gone tomorrow, all we’ve lost is a couple dollars, food donations and a wooden frame we can easily replace,” Burd said. “It’s totally worth the effort.
“It’s going to tell the neighbors we love them, we lament that some of them are struggling, and we care about their needs,” she said. “I have faith that some community members will contribute food and be glad for a tangible way to help others, and that others will take from it and be glad for the support. We will keep an eye on it, checking a few times each week to see if it needs additional items or upkeep. Other than that, we trust that it is offering of ‘the gifts of God for the people of God.’”
And if all goes well, those gifts will remain available throughout the cold Cleveland winter.
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