PITTSBORO — Two days after the most contentious Election Day of modern times, Chatham County community members converged on Pittsboro’s St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church with a markedly …
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PITTSBORO — Two days after the most contentious Election Day of modern times, Chatham County community members converged on Pittsboro’s St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church with a markedly different tone — embracing their differences and working together to assist the less fortunate.
Episcopalians and guests convened at the church’s W. Salisbury Street location, just west of downtown Pittsboro, as they do every Thursday for St. Bart’s community lunch — a free lunch program that has been running for almost 12 years. After the pandemic briefly stifled the service, church organizers regrouped and adjusted their model to align with current health guidelines and restarted the program in July.
“We used to have everyone seated inside to eat together,” said Terry Transue, a church attendee and the event’s director. “Now we check people in, they come up and give us their name and go on through.”
To keep attendees and organizers safe, the community lunch has evolved into a drive-through meal service. Anyone looking for a meal — not just church members — is encouraged to register in advance by calling the church, but the request is not enforced. Transue and other volunteers prepare meals in the church’s kitchen, then package and dispense them with minimal contact. Recipients are asked not to exit their vehicles to mitigate potential spread of the disease.
“We’ve been averaging about 115 to 135 meals each week,” Transue said.
That accounts for about 70 cars. Each vehicle is welcome to claim more than one meal.
“We have one lady who picks up meals for several families who really need help,” Transue said, “so she gets 10.”
Last week’s menu was a veritable smorgasbord of mostly donated foodstuffs professionally prepared by the church’s cooks.
“We’ve got sliced ham,” Transue said, “sweet potatoes with honey butter, corn pudding and apple blueberry crumble top for dessert.”
But he was quick to point out meals vary from week to week and they cannot always put together something as special as that day’s selection. They pulled out all the stops, though, to commemorate a special guest’s visit: Rt. Rev. Samuel Rodman, XII Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina.
“To me it’s a big deal,” Terry said of Rodman’s attendance. “He’s the bishop from Charlotte to Raleigh.”
In fact, Rodman’s diocese includes 38 counties in the central part of N.C., spanning from Charlotte past Raleigh to the Rocky Mount area. It is the largest of North Carolina’s three Episcopal dioceses, including most of its major metropolitan areas and comprising more than 49,000 members from about 120 congregations and campus ministries.
Rodman has overseen the area since 2017 when he was ordained and consecrated as a bishop, having previously served as a special projects officer for the church in Massachusetts.
It is Rodman’s habit to associate with the congregations under his purview, but his activity has been limited in recent months. Thursday was the first time he visited Pittsboro’s church since the pandemic began.
“During the whole time of pandemic, we continued our direct service to the community,” Rodman said, “but we had to come up with protocols that we felt would be safe and test those … We’ve had good success. But we’ve had to keep adjusting. When we got different information from the public health experts, we would change the protocols accordingly, and we’ve been fortunate so far.”
Pandemic restrictions have posed a vexing quandary for the church. Many of its most vital services, including food distributions at various locations around the state, have a higher demand than usual even as the threat of disease limits church activity.
“The volume and the places where we had offered food before has since the pandemic gone up dramatically,” Rodman said. “In the Charlotte distribution area, for example, it has almost doubled.”
To address the critical need, the Episcopal Church partnered with other religious groups and organizations to pool resources. One of its longest standing relationships is with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Steven Bodhaine, the president of the Apex N.C. Stake of LDS, who oversees 12 local Mormon congregations, attended Thursday’s lunch program along with Rodman.
“We’re thrilled to link arms with St. Bartholomew’s,” Bodhaine said. “This is a group of people who have been anonymous disciples of Jesus, working quietly in the shadows feeding hungry people. You know, that’s pure religion. And it’s wonderful during a pandemic for people of faith to simply link arms to go about doing good.”
The Mormon church has been involved with St. Bart’s food distribution almost since its inception. Donated goods from its members make up much of the offered meals, typically the meat selection.
Across North Carolina, the Church of Latter-day Saints has about 80,000 members in close to 130 congregations. In Greensboro, they have what Mormons call a “Bishop’s storehouse” — a pantry from which the organization distributes foodstuffs statewide.
“Once a month, members of the church engage in a fast,” Bodhaine said. “We go without food and drink for 24 hours and we make a financial contribution. That Bishop storehouse distributes food across the state of North Carolina. And it’s in part the contribution from that Bishop storehouse that helps provide food to help support the great work that St. Bartholomew’s have been doing for 12 years in feeding the hungry.”
The community lunch started in 2008, when church member Karen Ladd set out to address a need she identified in the area. The lunch was not strictly about feeding the poor and hungry; it had a broader purpose at its core.
“It was a way to build bridges in the community.” Ladd said. “Unlike many church food justice projects whose purpose is to feed folks who are poor, our community lunch strives to bring people from all walks of life together, both the guests and the volunteers.”
Her mission was, according to Rodman and Bodhaine, the very essence of Christianity.
“If you want to define what a Christian is,” Bodhaine said, “go take a good look at Karen. She just selflessly has gone about doing good for so many years.”
Ladd’s efforts have yielded the results she envisioned. She is not directly involved with the program anymore, but is pleased with its ongoing success and how the lunch has endured in spite of pandemic setbacks.
“The thing about the lunch that is so profound to me,” Ladd said, “is that people from all walks of life — homeless, hairdressers, farmers, artists, office workers, retired people, community college students, clergy, atheists and people on both sides of the political divide — all get to enjoy a delicious meal and time together. That doesn’t happen in many places these days.”
To Rodman and Bodhaine, last week’s lunch — two days after the controversial election that left much of the nation in rancor — perfectly exemplified the unity Ladd had sought to instill in her community.
“I think there’s a hope that goes with the actual distribution of the food,” Rodman said. “It’s the hope that you see embodied when folks from different backgrounds, experiences, perspectives, whether it’s political or religious, say what really matters is God’s call to serve each other. And that breaks down those barriers. While we’re still waiting for the results of the election, we’re here, we’re focused on our neighbors, our brothers and sisters, and that’s what matters. And that’s what binds us. That’s what gives us the strength to keep going when we get tired, because we’ve all gotten tired.”
While the pandemic has claimed more than 200,000 lives in this country and racked the economy, Rodman and Bodaine agree that it has accomplished at least one good thing: it has reminded the world of what really matters.
“You know, when all is said and done, what motivates this effort?” Bodhaine said. “It’s love — love of God and love of our fellow man. That sounds so simple. And yet it seems to have escaped society for a bit too long. The pandemic, I think offers us an invitation to reflect on the things that matter most.”
Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @dldolder.
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