A story of compassion with Angela Wheeless and the Diaconal Food Pantry

Everyone needs to eat. For the Bay Area, such a need is frequently realized in the form of an onslaught of ethnic cuisines from all over the world. In my own neighborhood, I only need to walk a few blocks before I come to a strip of restaurants boasting Ethiopian, Korean, Burmese, and Japanese food—all right next door to each other (and all worth checking out, if you have the chance). If I walk a few blocks in the opposite direction, I find Trader Joe’s and Safeway and Whole Foods and Sprouts—they’re all only streets apart.

Restaurants—or grocery stores that sell those “ready-made” meals—recognize a common problem we all face at one time or another, to varying degrees of severity: the struggle to put a meal on the table. For some of us, this struggle stems from lack of time, for others it stems from financial difficulties, and for still others— it’s a worrying combination of both.

Angela Wheeless recognizes this struggle, as it used to be her reality: “I was a 23-yr old single mom when Emi [her daughter] was born, working as a receptionist in OK, living in a 1-bedroom apartment, on food stamps, WIC, and Medicaid, and with no maternity or vacation leave. I supplemented my grocery shopping with trips to various food banks, in addition to seeking out support from other community agencies. There’s nothing quite like the fear and feelings of inadequacy in not being able to provide basic necessities to your child and yourself, especially as a new parent.

As she wrestled with these feelings of stress and anxiety, Angela made a commitment to herself: “I set a goal to not only build a life to provide for my family, but also to eventually be able to give back in abundance to others in need.” From there, she grew to become “part of various meals ministries… in every community [she’s] lived in, from making and delivering sandwiches to the houseless, meal prepping for those in transition or who are recovering from surgery/illness, delivering groceries to other single moms and the elderly, and more.”

Eventually, Angela turned her eyes to how she could directly help form a meal ministry for our community, starting last year. She ambitiously created a food pantry in her garage and “with the support of the [Grace South Bay] Diaconate Ministry, purchased a massive freezer to store home cooked and purchased meals.”

On an encouraging note, she remarks, “Since its creation, we have served dozens of families, some in our church community and many who are only connected through our members.”

Part of the beauty and challenge of food is how unifying or divisive it can be—sharing a meal draws people together, while severe allergies or restrictions can breed feelings of being left-out. As someone with Celiac Disease, Angela understands “the power and importance of caring for people in practical ways,” ways that often look like providing food that is not only accessible but safe for people to eat. All of the meals Angela cooks at home and freeze, then, are gluten free and often lactose/dairy free too.

“For those battling serious illness, doctors often severely restrict their diets as part of their treatment, which can add another layer of complexity and stress to an already overwhelmed family caring for a loved one,” Angela observes, empathizing with the debilitation of compounded stressors.

I asked her if she could share some of the moments of food ministry that have impacted her the most—“To care for them…with the full understanding and knowledge of what ‘safe foods‘ are, because I live [like] that myself, has been incredible to be part of. Seeing the momentary relief from the caregiver or standing in a kitchen of someone I’ve just met and have them breakdown crying because of gluten free/dairy free food they don’t have to make or stress about…those moments stay with me.”

Not only that, but Angela’s food pantry is an encouraging reminder that transformative ministry doesn’t always look as grand as angels coming down from heaven. Often, we find it

easy to disregard “simple” ministry as less impactful or important. Angela notes, “Practical ministry can seem so simple and insignificant at times, but with every grocery bag that I put together, I stop and focus on the family or person I’m building it for—what’s their story? What are they dealing with right now? What about the kids?”

Understanding that every meal is eaten by real people with real stories, real joy, and real hurt changes the way Angela views each food prepared. By thinking in questions, Angela finds herself not just shopping and cooking for “sustenance” but to “bring some fun or joy to their meal.

She says, “It’s with this in mind that I stock…fun-shaped mac & cheese, or gluten free `chicken nuggets and tater tots, and gluten free blueberry waffles and breakfast sausages…Food is a basic necessity, but that doesn’t mean the meals themselves need to be basic.

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Our interview then turned away from DinoNuggets or alphabet pasta, as she told me what a challenge highlighting her ministry is. She wonders, “If our congregational needs are minimal, then how do we make connections with and in service to the broader South Bay Community?”

Building off of this, Angela notes, “With everything that has been hitting our county in the last many months… we know there are needs we could be meeting with the Pantry. Finding those needs is the next critical step in realizing the initial goal and heart of this ministry.”

She expounded on this desire to find needs, sharing her vision as we closed out the interview. With this ministry and our immediate church community, Angela hopes “to find ways to intertwine various activities in service of the broader mission.”

One example of this could look like: “InstantPot owners in our congregation…scheduling a recipe swap and community dinner night…we all cook and eat together, building both our repertoires and our relationships with one another. We then pack the remaining meals for the community freezer!” With this idea comes a unique but simple way to combine community with church and food with families. While it may not be currently possible due to Covid-19, Angela is hopeful as it “highlights just one way that I’m trying to think creatively about various needs and ministries in our church community and how to combine them.” Reach out to Angela with your ideas on how to merge meals, community, and church—she would love to hear them!

Everybody needs to eat. In a way, needing to sleep and eat is a reminder that we are only human—we can’t survive relying wholly on ourselves. Instead, it is when we are our hungriest for food that our hunger can ultimately draw us closer to each other and Jesus.

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” —John 6:35

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