By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published April 2, 2020
DECATUR–As other food pantries shut down, volunteers at Sts. Peter and Paul Church continued to serve their neighbors.
Guided by a retired public health nurse, the crew of longtime volunteers at Gregg’s Pantry followed the mantra of “gloves, mask, distance” during the coronavirus crisis.
It wasn’t their usual style. People typically come to the pantry on the weekends for a friendly chat over a cup of coffee and a meal. They leave with grocery bags heavy with food.
“We are a greet ya’, how ya’ doing kind of church,” said Theresa Ivory, one of the organizers.
Coronavirus has cast a cloud over the friendliness. But even with the lack of human touch, scores of cars left with trunks filled with food.
“It was just heaven. It was a caravan going around,” said Ivory. “It was just beautiful.”
The ministry has not closed its doors during the COVID-19 virus pandemic.
Nina Darga is a longtime parishioner. She makes sure there is enough food and it is organized for the clients.
At 73, she said she weighed whether to skip volunteering on Saturday, March 21, but a chance encounter with a client while she walked the neighborhood convinced her to participate.
“I can go to the store any time. Not everybody is so lucky. Jesus said you are supposed to feed the hungry. And maybe even when it is not convenient,” Darga said.
Father Bryan Small, pastor of the Decatur church, said ministry members take it seriously to care for people. They want to do it as long as possible, with reasonable safety precautions, he said.
“It says an enormous amount about the quality of character and abundance of goodness of the parishioners, as long as they feel that need is there. It is just who they are,” Father Small said in a Facebook message.
Gregg’s Pantry is a tradition at the Decatur parish. Every Saturday, except on holidays, people help others. Their goal is to fill gaps in food supplies for families and seniors. It serves a struggling part of DeKalb County, where the median household income is about $38,000.
The food pantry is named to honor parishioner James Gregg, who died in 2008. He was a stalwart, rarely missing the chance to aid others.
The shelves and freezers are full of food from the Atlanta Community Food Bank. The pantry recently added a new commercial freezer with a financial gift from the Forever Pink Foundation, an affiliate of Lambda Epsilon Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.
As many as 90 people might come on a given Saturday for the hospitality and the food.
“If you have kids, you are going to walk away with a lot,” said Ivory.
It’s an example of friendly service to others Ivory found when she walked into the church a stranger in the late 1970s. A woman who became a dear friend approached her and took the time to become acquainted. There is a genuine interest among our members for each other, she said.
Leading by example
“My parish is more like a family. Everybody knows just about everybody in the church. Everybody gives 100 percent. If there is someone sick, someone who needs a word, someone who is lost and doesn’t know where to go, there is a ministry in our church for them.”
Ivory retired after 18 years at Grady Hospital and more than 20 at the DeKalb County Board of Health. Her doctor recently called her elderly, which she jokingly disputed.
Sts. Peter and Paul was founded in August 1959. It has about 750 families. On its campus is the St. Peter Claver Regional School. Students usually help prepare the bags of groceries guided by Darga.
Ivory praised the pastor, Father Small. He was with the volunteers both recent Saturdays to support them. By seeing the priest lead by example, “you cannot help but believe,” she said. “Shout out to my pastor.”
“We are all brothers and sisters, trying to find our way. My mother used to say, we are all on a journey.”
Saturday’s service came after a lot of worry. “It was a hard decision to make. It took a lot of prayer,” she said.
If members were uncomfortable, they were encouraged to stay home. Most came even though they are older, she said.
But she came up with the plan to keep distance with no contact between clients and volunteers.
No clients got out of their cars. No one touched. A volunteer took down the household details, standing an arm’s length distance from the passenger side window to speak with the driver. Items were delivered into the open car trunk. More than 50 households received groceries on March 21.
Ivory wasn’t surprised her volunteers came to serve. “If I told them they couldn’t come, I would have had a riot,” she said.
On Saturday, March 28, the work continued with 74 families–most of them newcomers–dropping by for groceries.
Ivory said one woman had moved to DeKalb from Cobb County with her five children. She and her boyfriend had both lost jobs due to the crisis and their new apartment was not ready.
The pantry’s policy is to feed anyone who comes for the first time even if they are not in the “catchment area,” she said.
“She had nowhere else to go for food and has no money,” said Ivory. “Her friend’s neighbor told her that we would give her food.”