Alum Stories

Ministry in a Time of Pandemics: Rev. Gregory D. Gross

Gregory Gross with Van

Rev. Gregory D. Gross

Master of Divinity, 2003
Executive Director, Care for Real,
Chicago, Illinois

In the middle of the multitude of pandemics, I assumed the position of executive director of Care for Real, one of the largest food pantries in Chicago. In my new ministry setting, I have witnessed how the pandemics are so intertwined if not in one single knot. The COVID-19 pandemic led to a 23 percent increase in food insecurity in the Chicago region as folks, many of whom were already one paycheck away from crisis, lost their jobs. And unsurprisingly, people of color are disproportionately impacted.

At Care for Real, we saw a 143 percent increase in first-time visitors to our food pantry in 2020 over the previous year, while distributing nearly two million pounds of food to our neighbors in need. What is most incredible to me is that on any single morning the line of neighbors waiting to receive free groceries looks like the United Nations, with myriad backgrounds represented and at least 12-15 different languages spoken. This is absolutely the most diverse collection of individuals and families I’ve been blessed to serve. Each is the face of the divine and each in need of that most basic of needs: food.

Every morning, I speak with someone making their first visit ever to a food pantry, folks who never thought they would be in a position of needing to ask for food. Nearly every person will share with me that they held out as long as possible to make ends meet before working up the courage or overcoming their shame in needing help. The stigma associated with visiting a food pantry is strong in our nation. Oh, how our misplaced focus on rugged individualism has caused damage. That so many people would choose to go hungry rather than ask for help illustrates the systemic challenges we must overcome.

At the same time, I’m regularly surprised when I share that we seek to tailor the groceries to individual dietary restrictions and preferences and am met by surprise. For example, many of our clients do not eat pork for religious reasons, while others are vegetarian or diabetic. Many do not want canned foods and only want fresh fruits and vegetables. When I have shared this with folks wanting to organize canned food drives, I am often met with a variation on “beggars can’t be choosers.” When did serving the least, the last, and the lost, mean serving only the least palatable, last food I’d eat myself or the lost can of peas in the back of the cupboard, which I just found and is now expired? The implications of “beggars can’t be choosers” become even more convicting when we remember that households of color are disproportionately food insecure. How quickly we forget the many parables of welcoming folks to the banquet feast. No wonder folks are reluctant to go to a pantry. They are afraid the only groceries they’ll receive are the rejected groceries from our own kitchens.

My ministry as an ordained deacon in The United Methodist Church calls me to work for justice and compassion. This means serving each visitor to the community food pantry — literally our neighbor — with dignity and compassion. Whether this takes the form of culturally appropriate food, a volunteer who can serve them in their native language, or funding to expand our service to other communities in need, this is my ministry.