Groceries and dignity at St. Clement’s
Nathan Davis was drawn to St. Clement’s Church by the buzz his wife, Annie, heard at the free medical clinic in Harvey where she worked as a doctor.
“She was constantly hearing from her patients about the red door church,” Davis says, “so we went and checked it out.”
What they found was a church with a Sunday attendance that fluctuated between 12 and 20, but that was an essential presence in its neighborhood. Within a month, Nathan Davis was running St. Clement’s community garden. Nine months later he became head of the parish’s food pantry. Today he is senior warden and food justice coordinator.
The pantry, which serves as many as 350 families a month during the busy season from May to January, is an institution in Harvey. The town, about 20 miles south of Chicago, is a multi-ethnic community of more than 25,000 people, more than a third of whom live below the federal poverty line.
Turn up early on a Tuesday morning in St. Clement’s neighborhood of low-slung houses and you’ll run into a small crew of volunteers preparing the basement, nave, and parish hall to serve as warehouse, welcome center and distribution center respectively. The refrigerated truck from the Greater Chicago Food Depository arrives at about eight, and a crew that usually includes Alan Engle, husband of the Rev. Rod Reinhart, the church’s rector, unloads up to two thousand pounds of meat and groceries that is supplemented by food from St. Clement’s struggling garden and contributions from the gardens at St. John’s, Flossmoor, and Ingalls Memorial Garden.
Davis, who is also the diocese’s communications intern, arrives at about 1 p.m., and by 3 p.m. the street in front of the church is alive with a crowd of 50 to 80 people, most of them women, and in the summer months, children. “Our block is sort of an intensified version of the feeling of the neighborhood on that week,” Davis says. “Sometimes, especially when it is hot, there is enormous irritability; in general it’s a pretty good-natured group of folks.”
The pantry, officially known as Annette’s Pantry after its founder Annette Broome, is distinctive for several reasons: the variety of food available is satisfying; guests are allowed to choose only the foods they want; and guests of the pantry and residents of the neighborhood make up most of the volunteer staff.
“They have a nice selection of canned goods,” says Jeanette Ghoston of Harvey. “They have a nice selection of meat. Usually pork, chicken and beef. They have a nice selection of breads. Juices. Sometimes we get treated to pastries. The kids are looking forward to that, of course.”
Ghoston relies on the pantry to keep food on her family’s table after the groceries she purchases with food stamps run low. “I use it as a stretch,” she says.
Ethel Perry of nearby Hazel Crest says the people at Annette’s Pantry bring a special attitude to their work. “They treat me like I am human too,” Perry says. “They don’t act like, ‘I am going to treat you bad because you are at the food pantry.’
“They let you select what you want and that is even better. There’s some of them tell you that you have to take whatever is in the bag.”
Davis says that allowing guests to choose their food is practical be- cause unwanted food often gets wasted. But the pantry’s commitment to the policy has deeper roots. “People have reacted very well to it,” he says. “They don’t feel like they are part of a cog in a system and we have a quota of how much food we give out.”
What has knit the pantry to the neighborhood most closely, however, is Davis’ cultivation of neighborhood volunteers. “He has that wonderful inviting presence where everyone is equal,” says Helen Klaviter, the Jubilee Center director at St. Clement’s, who has attended the church more than 40 years and been involved with the pantry since its inception. “He works hard to build the skills of the volunteers, and that can be anybody from the neighborhood person who has a disability but can help carry bags to people who may have been jobless for years but have taken over organizing that part of the pantry that they know well.”
“In my experience of social justice projects in general, by and large they are middle class and upper middle class folks that have the ability and free time to give to a project,” Davis says. “That is not the case at St. Clement’s. Most of the people that come to help out are also guests. They started as guests. They saw that we were overworked and said, ‘What can I do to help out?’”
Joseph Stovall, who on many Tuesdays is the smiling face of the pantry, is one such person.
“A friend of mine told me about [the pantry] and I decided to come down and get my family some food, and I saw how everything was going and I spoke with Nathan and asked him if I could be a volunteer, and ever since Nathan Davis has been a real good friend of mine.”
Stovall has five children and three grandchildren. “I don’t have a steady job,” he says. “I spend most of the time taking care of my family. My wife is in a wheelchair. But I like to help out.” At the pantry he frequently checks guests in and gives them the number that is called when it is their turn to choose food. “I tell them ‘Nobody should have negativity,’” Stovall says. “‘Don’t be mad; don’t be sad. There’s enough for everybody.’ I say that to everybody and they get a smile on their face.”
“Some of my favorite stories are the ones from the sanctuary with people saying, ‘What kind of church is this? Can I say a prayer? Is the pastor here? Can you give him this note, it’s a prayer.’”
There wasn’t always enough for everybody, but the pantry has grown since Broome, a dietitian and the first black woman to graduate from the University of West Virginia, started it primarily with the force of her personality.
“She was outgoing,” Klaviter says. “Everybody fell in love with her and she could get anybody to do anything.”
Though the pantry wasn’t founded until 1990, pantry-like activities began in the early 1980s “as people walked by church and asked for food or whatever hand-out they needed, whether it was toilet paper or supplies and we would go rummage in the kitchen cabinets and see what we might have,” Klaviter says. “At that point, church attendance was in the neighborhood of 80 to 100, and we had two masses. But it was never a rich parish. So what we were finding was leftovers from this or that potluck, supplemented by whatever staples people might bring from home.
“Annette started buying food any place she could find a bargain, and gradually things became more formal.”
Klaviter, who retired in 2008 as managing editor of Poetry magazine, was a central figure in this evolution. She wrote grants, joined and eventually served as both treasurer and co-chair of the diocesan hunger committee, and developed the pantry’s network of financial supporters that in recent years has included Christ Church, Winnetka; St. Michael’s, Barrington; Transfiguration, Palos Park; the Church of the Atonement in Chicago, and the Hunger Committee. For her service, Klaviter received the Bishop’s Award in 2009.
Davis also falls back on the generosity of several St. Clement’s parishioners from time to time. “There are some individuals who will drop a thousand or two thousand dollar check on something,” he says. “I can come to them and say that this has to get paid for, help me out, and they will take care of it.”
Life in Harvey, where the violent crime rate is more than four times the national average and the rate of automobile ownership is among the lowest in the country, still presents significant challenges. When the City of Chicago razed Cabrini Green and the Robert Taylor Homes, many former residents of those public housing projects moved to subsidized housing in Harvey.
“I tell everybody Harvey itself is not bad, it’s some of the people that make it bad,” Ghoston says. “We have the Fourth of July parade, fireworks, different things for the kids to keep busy; football, different stuff for the girls, dance and drill team. So they do a lot of stuff for the kids to keep the kids busy. And you have a lot of churches. So there is no excuse for not going to church in Harvey. Predominantly, Harvey is not that bad, but there are a few bad seeds in it.”
Though he is committed to the people of Harvey, Davis acknowledges some frustrations. “Just trying to supply basic needs for folks is a bigger deal that it might be in some places,” he says. The story of the parish’s food garden is illustrative.
“We have had to radically change how that project works because we can’t get water consistently. The infrastructure in the whole city is poor, but especially on the block where the church is located. The water pressure we get, it just dribbles out of the faucet, especially in the summer time when people are opening up the hydrants.
“We’ve had to go toward more perennials. We’ve got a few berry bushes out there now and people like that, but we can’t do annual vegetables because they require so much water.”
Klaviter, who helps volunteers learn how to use the computer system that keeps track of the pantry’s guests, is a veteran of this struggle. Her late former husband, Douglas Klaviter, grew up in Harvey, and the couple moved there in 1972, brimming with idealism and hoping to help build an integrated community. They left, however, when their daughter, Elizabeth, reached school age. The local public schools, “were just not an option at all,” she says.
Klaviter has lived on the north side of Chicago for 16 years but still makes the 60-mile round trip commute to Harvey at least once a week because the work is so rewarding. “This is just a great place to be attached to. The pantry is very definitely at the heart of this church. It gives the church a reason for being.”
“Some of my favorite stories are the ones from the sanctuary with people saying, ‘What kind of church is this? Can I say a prayer? Is the pastor here? Can you give him this note, it’s a prayer,’” she says.
“We get people in tears. One woman came in tears because she had been turned away at another pantry because she hadn’t had proper ID. We do insist on ID, but we always give food. I’ve heard this more than once that we are identified as the ‘nice’ pantry, the one where the people are nice.” The designation predates Davis’ tenure, she says, but “we are nicer now that Nathan is here.”
Klaviter lives three blocks from another Episcopal church but still calls the red door church in Harvey her parish. “St. Clement’s builds that kind of loyalty in its people,” she says. “You just don’t leave St. Clement’s behind.”