There’s a small patch on our front lawn that has been worn down to dirt. Barefoot kids have tread there, and grandmothers in house shoes, and neighbors wearing tennis shoes and flip flops. All of them have stopped to peruse the two tables we set out in the yard three months ago. The tables, which we affectionately call our “community pantry,” actually began as one, weighed down with extraneous soap and soup, toilet paper and tortillas, mac ‘n cheese and crackers from our own pantry. Three months ago, my partner and I grappled with the question on many minds at the time: How, in the midst of this pandemic, will our small town be able to meet the needs of its people?
It was March 21 when we went through our home and set up the first table. Virtual teaching had just begun and the weather was cool as we hung a sign with the words “We carry each other… FREE to anyone in need.” I sent assignments off to my students, Zoom-conferenced with my colleagues, and watched as the table diminished to nothing over the course of a few hours. We welcomed all to our table, no caveats, no forms, no need to “give back.” As with my teaching during this global crisis, the focus was on deep compassion rather than rigid expectations.
Now, nearly three months later, our neighbors from around the county have kept the tables full with food and household goods, even clothing, shoes, and books. My partner and I sorted through eleven jumbo bags of candy at Easter, spent over $300 in cash donations buying infant formula and diapers, and sometimes have a hard time keeping up with the many offerings we get throughout each day.
The phrase I wrote on our community pantry sign echoed my mother, who often used the phrase with a shrug when I asked why she carried out service to her community. When a neighbor pressed twenty dollars in my hand at the curb, or I watched a mother pick up formula while a car seat-bound onlooker cried, or I chatted with a neighbor about local politics as he picked up some rice, or a coworker dropped off baby food, or two teenagers paused on the little dirt patch to fold some clothes that had been left askew, I heard the words again. The year so far has beaten many of us down, horrifically, unfairly, terrifyingly. But over the last three months, I have also witnessed the power of a community carrying each other through.