Providing nourishment for bodies and souls

Feeding the hungry in North Carolina

“For I was hungry, and you gave me food…” For more than 10 years, the people of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Burlington, North Carolina, have responded to the words of Jesus with a monthly distribution from the Little Portion Food Pantry. Originally they served around 150 families each month. But the numbers climbed steadily over the years, and since the economic upheaval from the pandemic, the number of families served has soared, now averaging more than 900 each month.

“When covid hit, the food pantry exploded,” said Friar Vincent Rubino, pastor of Blessed Sacrament. “There was grant money available that Friar Paul Lininger was able to access, and we received other contributions of money and food. It’s grown to a level that is on a par with Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Raleigh.

“Whatever is left after the monthly distribution, some of our parishioners take to the trailer parks in our area. There are some people in real need. I visited there recently in advance of another project we’re getting ready to roll out – it breaks your heart.”

The parish’s Knights of Columbus came up with an idea to Stuff-A-Truck, in which they take donations from parishioners and others in the community. There is also a place inside the church where donations can be left. This is in addition to the financial contributions from the parish.

“Some people make significant donations, but there are so many who give out of the generosity of their hearts,” Friar Vincent said. “We bring in about $8,000 a month, but we’re spending around $10,000. The difference comes from an account we have with grant money that was dedicated for the food pantry.”

The donated and purchased items are placed in boxes and bags for distribution. Basic cooking staples are the first ingredient.

“Potatoes and onions, pasta, peanut butter – those are the items where we get the most for our money,” Friar Vincent said. “We also purchase fresh food, greens and so on, that’s delivered the day before the distribution. We  have a great relationship with Second Harvest, who sells food to us at a very discounted price. We have a contract with them, and they came out for an on-site evaluation to see that everything was being stored properly, what our refrigerators and freezers were like. They were so impressed by everything and what we’re able to do that they gave us a substantial donation.

“The challenge now is that there are no more grants available. We talked with Catholic Charities in Raleigh/Durham, and that’s exactly the situation they’re in. So now we’re only buying with the donations we receive.” But the need hasn’t diminished.

“The lines aren’t getting any shorter,” Friar Vincent said. “The boxes are for either families of four or six. It’s only a supplement – certainly not enough to live on. But it provides a way of getting through the month. And it’s not only those who are obviously poor.
You can’t tell someone’s status from the car they drive. There are those who are construction workers or others who may be struggling with full-time employment. Different economic statuses, different times – people need help.”

Franciscans have staffed Blessed Sacrament since the 1980s. There are five Masses on the weekends, three in English and two in Spanish, and all are very well attended. Friar Vincent sees a link between the parish’s commitment  to the poor and its Franciscan heritage.

“There’s a great fit between the parishioners and the spirit of St. Francis, and it shows in their  outreach,” he said. “They’re working with people in their own back yard, having fun while helping those in need. We have people from other churches helping and students from Elon University. This work feeds the volunteers as well. It’s just part of our charism to reach out to the poor  and anyone else who needs help.”

The new program Friar Vincent mentioned focuses on reaching out to fill the spiritual hunger of those in need.

“The parish is extraordinarily vibrant, with a good core group of faithful people,” he  said. “The idea came up that they want to take the Eucharist and go out to the trailer  park. There is a list of  around 300 families who have come to the parish for special celebrations, such as the 46 nights of the Rosary leading up to the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, but they aren’t coming to church on a regular basis.

“There’s a team going out, around 20 parishioners, to what is a small area but houses many families. They will go into each house with the monstrance and Blessed Sacrament, just like Jesus visiting the house of Zacchaeus. They will pray with the families, then spend time talking with them. We’re hopeful that it will bear a lot of fruit. The people are excited. I have to give thanks to (Diocese of Raleigh) Bishop (Luis Rafael)  Zarama for suggesting projects like this – to leave the parish confines and go to the people, wherever they  are.”

Published with permission from Messenger of Saint Anthony Magazine, Padua, Italy.