Learning From Those Who Live with Hunger — Vicar Ron Costen
I am preparing to be a Lutheran pastor later in life than do most other people who make this decision, as God brings us down different pathways to the same choices. However, after more than 30 years of teaching, doing social work and law, I now serve as a pastoral intern for policy development and providing pastoral care to those who visit the Ecumenical Food Pantry located at Messiah Lutheran Church in downtown Harrisburg. These current experiences have taught me more in three months than I have learned in many of the years of study and teaching to date. I have taught scores of policy courses that touch upon hunger issues, but I really had no knowledge of the lived experience of hunger, and related injustices, until just recently.
My learning began when Tracey DePasquale, director of Lutheran Advocacy Ministry in Pennsylvania (LAMPa) invited me, and others, to a daylong meeting on hunger sponsored by Pennsylvania’s first lady Frances Wolf. At that meeting I was surprised to learn of the large number of organizations and people involved in assuring that the most food deprived in Pennsylvania are able to continue receiving food assistance through school lunch programs, food pantries and other food provision services supported in part by state and federal tax dollars, along with donations from individuals, churches and other organizations.
One of the best experiences of that day was net-working with people who are long time food advocates. These included people from the Pittsburgh Food Council; Hunger-Free Lancaster; Greater Philadelphia Coalition against Hunger; the Central PA Food Bank and others. One of these people was Cheryl Burns, a long term food advocate and member of the LAMPa Policy Council, representing the Lower Susquehanna Synod. During our time together she introduced me and Pastor Holger Roggelin to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Domestic Hunger Grants Program. Pr. Roggelin and I, working with the board of the Ecumenical Food Pantry and Messiah’s Church Council assisted in putting together a grant application that, if funded, will provide additional funds for the Food Pantry and Messiah’s staff to be more involved with assisting those who come to the food pantry to deal with other areas of difficulty than food.
Being an intern at LAMPa and Messiah presented a perfect opportunity for me not only to learn about food policy issues through my LAMPa internship, it opened the door for me to be with and serve the Ecumenical Food Pantry guests that come five days a week from 10A until 2P to secure food. What is so surprising to me is that even though I have been a member of Messiah Church for 30 or more years, I had never before been present at the church during the week when the Food Pantry recipients came for food.
What is so striking is the host of additional needs that these recipients also experience: illness; nutritional deficiencies (both obesity and under nourishment); unemployment; homelessness; drug difficulties and other life challenges. I now work with these folks to seek to help them meet additional needs such as housing; finding transportation for job interviews and then to work if successful and financial assistance to the truly indigent.
If the ELCA hunger grant is awarded we will have greater ability to work with the Food Pantry recipients. Already Pastor Roggelin and I have reached out to the Pinnacle Health System, which serves the downtown Harrisburg area (and others) to secure health education on-site; health screenings on site; and the provision of a defibrillator and Narcan to revive those who have overdosed on opioids, who come to secure assistance at the Food Pantry and at Messiah.
I did not know how little I knew until I had the opportunity to seek to help from a pastoral role and discovered that there was a world of experiential knowledge and perspective that I lacked. Thankfully I am learning daily and by God’s grace will be, along with LAMPa, Messiah and the Ecumenical Food Pantry, able to extend God’s love to more neighbors.
I want to encourage all who read this to engage in advocacy and services and learn how much you can come to know and how gracious you can be in serving your neighbor with greater knowledge and understanding.