First Christian Church (FCC) in Portland, Oregon moves seven tons of food through its building every week.
Yes, you read that right… seven tons, every week.
In an effort to address the city’s food insecurity issues, which have only become compounded with the COVID-19 pandemic, the congregation partners with local nonprofit organizations to prepare meals for houseless individuals and low-income senior citizens, communities that have been the hardest hit by Portland’s high housing prices.
But FCC’s commitment to its community isn’t just a recent development; it’s had a sandwich ministry for more than 25 years. Every Wednesday, volunteers would meet in the church’s kitchen, make 100-120 sandwiches, and place them in Ziploc baggies decorated with “First Christian Church loves you” stickers. Then they would load them up in wagons along with clean socks, some toiletries, and personal hygiene supplies. The volunteers would head out downtown with different wagons and routes.
“There were some regulars who always knew Wednesday was sandwich day,” recalls Rev. Cynthia Dobson McBride, First Christian’s Senior Minister, “and they could count on a sandwich from the church volunteers.”
The people of FCC understand that being able to prepare food can be a challenge for the houseless community. A person who lives in their car or sleeps in a tent may not have the tools at their disposal to prepare the items provided by some traditional food pantries and programs. That’s why sandwiches are so dependable, and depended upon.
In addition to its feeding ministry, FCC provides space for other agencies downtown that primarily work with the houseless community. On Wednesday nights, a group called HOMEpdx would use their fellowship hall to cook a meal and offer other services. Church volunteers were involved as well, including one who cut hair for free. A lot of the folks who would come were young adults, so video games were provided, as well as showers and laundry facilities.
The other agency that FCC closely works with is Clay Street Table, which partnered with HOMEpdx for the Wednesday night gatherings and would bring local high school students in to help prepare the meal.
“It was an opportunity for high school students to be in conversation with the houseless community and to build a community of their own, to have a chance to serve together,” says Rev. McBride. “That shifted and changed a lot with the coming of COVID-19 of course.”
Most of FCC’s volunteers for the sandwich ministry are retirees, so the first week of the pandemic, when it was clear that everything was shutting down, it wasn’t safe for them to come make sandwiches and hand them out. At the same time, other feeding ministry programs downtown were shutting their doors, some due to a decrease in volunteers, others to a lack of funding, and some due to the chaos of the first week of the coronavirus pandemic.
But FCC’s members didn’t want to abandon their friends on the street.
Several years ago, the congregation went through a process of redeveloping church property. A portion of the building was about to fall down, but the land it stood on, an entire city block, was incredibly valuable due to its downtown location. At that point, congregants made the decision to sell half of the block, including the air rights above the sanctuary, to developers. Their agreement saw the construction of a high-rise condominium on church land, with a guaranteed view for the apartments, a new office space for FCC staff, and a parking garage. Part of the parking is guaranteed for condo residents, and part of it is public. That means the parking garage has been a source of income for the congregation; this substantially supplements the budget. Since the church’s membership has decreased in size like many other mainline Protestant churches, it was unlikely that the current congregation could fund property maintenance.
With the shutdown, businesses closed and events were cancelled. No one was parking in the garage. A major source of income for the church dried up overnight. FCC needed to find additional sources of revenue to maintain current staffing, support its outreach ministries, and keep the lights on. It did a one-time special requested fund drive within the congregation, resulting in some over and above gifts, but even these couldn’t cover the shortfall. Rev. McBride and her staff then applied to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) with a local bank, but got caught up in the mire of paperwork, hitting roadblocks at every turn. At this point, they needed additional funding in order to make it to the end of the year. They contacted Disciples Church Extension Fund (DCEF) about a loan. DCEF is offering Disciples congregations emergency, short-term financing to help them weather the storm of the pandemic.
As Rev. McBride tells it, it was in a conversation about the loan that Building and Capital Services Advisor Rosario Ibarra asked if the congregation had gotten the PPP loan. When the pastor relayed her difficulties with the bank, Rosario connected her with someone who could help, a loan officer in Indiana who had specifically been trained to help Disciples congregations through the process. With one week before the PPP application was due, FCC was able to find another bank to lend it the PPP loan.
“We’re so thankful. It truly is a huge blessing for the congregation,” shares Rev. McBride. “The PPP and DCEF loans will help the church get through the end of this year and continue the incredible feeding ministries that we’re doing, as well as help with payroll and budgets.”
With a secure financial footing, FCC’s sandwich ministry leaders were able to dive headfirst into conversations with Clay Street Table and HOMEpdx about how to address the issue of food insecurity facing the houseless community.
The model of most of the downtown feeding programs was to prepare a meal and serve it to people indoors, an unsafe practice in the time of a pandemic. First Christian’s model is different – it cooks food at the church and then serves it outdoors. For years it had been practicing social distancing without even knowing it. So First Christian, Clay Street Table, and HOMEpdx intensified their partnerships. From that very first week of the shutdown, they began providing a meal at noon, Monday through Friday. They went from assembling sandwiches to assembling sack lunches. The menu varies depending on what’s available at the Oregon Food Bank and what’s donated, but they use the same wagons as before. And they now have volunteers who come from six different churches as well as community groups and families. In addition, the houseless folks who had previously taken advantage of HOMEpdx’s services are now part of their volunteer staff, making up two teams who coordinate these noontime meals.
“It’s been an interesting shift from housed people who would come inside the church and take the food out, to houseless friends who come inside the church and fix the food, which is then served in the community by housed friends,” notes Rev. McBride. “It feels a little bit like ‘the first will be last and the last will be first,’ ‘the out will be in and the in will be out.’”
In the meantime, other ministries have expanded as well. There’s a burrito night on Tuesdays, early Saturday morning breakfasts, and on Sundays, the church kitchen is used to fix a hot meal that’s taken across the Willamette River and served on the east side of Portland. So FCC is providing food seven days a week.
But the houseless community isn’t the only community experiencing food insecurity. Even though many low-income seniors live in subsidized housing downtown, they struggle with being able to afford rent, medication, and food. With only one grocery store located downtown, many make the decision to skip food altogether. Pre-COVID, a large number of these older adults could rely on food pantries, but with the pandemic, it’s been safer for them to stay at home. To feed their elderly neighbors, Clay Street Table coordinates a process where food is brought in from the food bank into First Christian Church, reconfigured into small pantry boxes, loaded up by volunteers, and then driven to downtown apartments so that different subsidized housing units will get a delivery every week. Apartment managers help distribute boxes inside to residents who’ve signed up.
“It’s really kind of a food pantry delivery service,” muses Rev. McBride. “So the same food is going to the same people who were getting it before, but it’s a totally different mechanism.”
The local Asian community has also been affected by the lack of grocery alternatives. That’s why the program has expanded to include culturally sensitive food for its Chinese elders, who might not be able to prepare what’s coming from the food pantry.
The food pantry is also accessible to individuals who are downtown and not in the senior apartment delivery program. Members of FCC have set up a table in the church’s glass entryway with a display of available items, such as beans and canned fruit. One at a time, people stand outside the window and fill out an order slip with their name and what they would like in one bag of groceries. After they’re finished, they wait in the park across the street as a volunteer fills their bag. Once their name is called, they can pick up their groceries.
“It still gives people a sense of choice, ownership, and personhood,” says Rev. McBride. “Instead of providing a bag of groceries that everybody else is getting that might have items that that person dislikes, we give the process an extra five minutes to preserve human dignity, even while social distancing. I really appreciate that attention to recognizing individuals, even in the midst of crisis.”
Ultimately, these ministries are addressing issues that are too large for the church to address on its own, but for Rev. McBride, feeding people who are hungry is a tangible action that her faith community can take, one that is magnified by its local partnerships. So even though worship services are no longer taking place in the building, it’s still in active use. In Rev. McBride’s words,
“The church is being a church.”
You can watch our interview with Pastor McBride here.
UPDATE: In the time since DCEF and Pastor McBride spoke, FCC has added a Latinx pantry for migrant families with children, Saturday breakfast has become a ‘brunch’ delivered out to camps, and plans are being made to erect tent awnings in the church courtyard during the rainy season.