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story.lead_photo.caption Rick Bryan instructs a person on the procedure for the new drive-thru format of the Bethlehem Food Pantry on Monday, put in place at the Greenbrier church to reduce the risk of spreading covid-19 among recipients and church volunteers. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Francisca Jones)

Charlotte Davis, Rick Bryan and Cary Davis stood and waited in rain gear Monday afternoon at the mouth of the driveway across from Greenbrier's Bethlehem Baptist Church.

Outside with them in the overcast day, an easel stood propping up a bright paper sign, damp from the intermittent rain: "Stop here."

"We are stopping them here because we only serve one at a time," said Charlotte Davis, a member of Bethlehem.

Davis, a volunteer at Bethlehem's food pantry, was helping with its distribution day at the pantry. Instead of recipients waiting inside the church's family life center, people receiving boxes of food trickled in and out of a drive-thru style procession, staying inside their vehicles to prevent the potential spread of the coronavirus, which has accounted for more than 200,000 cases and 8,000 deaths worldwide.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

Many houses of worship in Central Arkansas have closed their physical doors and canceled special events in favor of small gatherings and have livestreamed services because of the covid-19 pandemic, which saw its first presumed case in Arkansas on March 11. And while the number of restaurants that have closed or converted to delivery or carryout have increased, faith members are stepping up to ensure that houses of worship continue serving their communities while limiting or avoiding contact altogether.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued specific guidelines to community and faith-based organizations. Those guidelines include a call to identify services that might be limited or temporarily discontinued during an outbreak, in the hopes of limiting the spread of the virus.

Carol Flowers, the parish administrator for Christ Church in Little Rock, said the church still held its Green Groceries program distribution Wednesday, but instead of people stopping to visit with program volunteers they instead picked up a bag identified as theirs from a table placed outside.

"There's lots of distancing," Flowers said of the change.

It's the first time Bethlehem -- which serves 120-130 recipients on the first and third Monday each month -- has tried a drive-thru distribution method.

"This is a very unusual way for us to do it," Calvin Davis said.

Normally, recipients will park, enter, take a number and wait while seated on folding chairs in the church's family life center, chatting with one another until the pantry begins distributing food at 1 p.m.

On Monday, volunteers at the mouth of the center's driveway gave instructions on how the distribution was to take place before sending them on their short but winding way to the end of the drive.

David Coffman was among the volunteers placing boxes of applesauce, meat, milk and other commodities in their vehicle. Seeing a car headed down the drive, Coffman approached its stopping point while Bill Townsend, another member of Bethlehem, pulled one of the wagons with a cardboard box of food.

"How are you doing, m'am?" Coffman, smiling, asked the car's driver. "Where would you like the box?"

"That's the way it's been going all day," Davis said. "The volume [of recipients] is not as heavy as normal at all."

"It's a little different today," Townsend said. "Weather, and this virus thing."

The distribution came the day after Sunday services, which saw a decrease of at least 30 members at Bethlehem, Davis said. Eighteen people showed up for Sunday School instead of the usual 30 or so. Volunteers had packed only 80 bags for Monday's distribution, anticipating lower participation because of the rain and the threat of coronavirus. By 3 p.m., half an hour before its closing, they had run out of boxes -- and potatoes -- and ended up preparing more boxes for a total of at least 114.

"There's going to be a shortage of donations," Davis said. "That'll hurt us more than anything."

The church receives food for its pantry from the Arkansas Food Bank and buys its milk from an area distributor, he said. It has enough to distribute again April 6.

The pastor and church have decided that if anyone in the church comes down with the virus, Bethlehem and its pantry will close.

"The mayor [Sammy Joe Hartwick] will have something to do with it too," said Davis, noting that Conway Mayor Bart Castleberry asked that all churches remain closed Sunday.

The food pantry at Saint Mark's Episcopal Church in Little Rock is one of the church's few ministries still operating, according to Tricia Peacock, a chairman of the church's board.

According to Peacock, couples in their 30s and 40s have stepped up to help in place of older volunteers who run a greater risk of infection by covid-19. As with Bethlehem, the pantry will distribute food in a drive-thru fashion, and volunteers -- wearing gloves -- will take bags of commodities and other items to people's vehicles, adding frozen meat just before bags are placed in trunks and backseats.

"It takes a lot of organization and we're learning as we go," Peacock said. "The most important thing for us is that we need to feed people. They're hungry."

Matt Hubbard, missions pastor of Little Rock's Immanuel Baptist Church, said Monday that adapting to change was "kind of part of our new day."

"These have been a daunting and almost fearful set of days," Hubbard said.

Immanuel has been operating a food pantry through its church for years and transitioned operations to its newly opened, multipurpose City Center, with the food pantry serving its first day from the center March 3. The pantry is closed until the end of the month, but Hubbard shared Wednesday that among the initial adaptations for the coronavirus, the center has temporarily expanded a program to share meals with elementary schools -- including Terry Elementary, located across the street from the church on Shackleford Road -- on the weekends by way of a drive-thru.

Immanuel's members also will be able to help with service opportunities that don't take them in close contact with community members, such as delivering groceries and prescriptions to those with a greater risk of contracting the disease.

All these, Hubbard said, are the "first wave" of opportunities.

"In these unprecedented times we are trusting that God will give us unprecedented opportunities to share the love of Christ with our neighbors and those throughout the city," Hubbard said in an email.

"Like everybody, we don't really know what we need, you know what I mean?" said David McFerron, pastor of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church. "We're trying to figure it out."

The Mt. Vernon-based congregation, which averages 220 in attendance on a Sunday morning, met Sunday with minor changes. Members didn't pass the collection place, ushers and other helpers were instructed not to shake hands or hug, and the church doors were propped open so people could enter the church without touching them. Added to the service was a prayer for leadership, healing, and the country's health care system, McFerron said.

Hope is the one element that McFerron seeks to have the church provide to others.

"I think we can be a calming voice to people, offering assurance in these rapidly changing times," he said. "That's our hope, is that we can provide assistance where we can, but also offer hope that Jesus is our hope in this life and in eternal life.

"If Christ offers us an opportunity to share the message, we're going to do that."

David Coffman (right) places a netted bag of potatoes in the trunk of a vehicle for a client at the family life center of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Greenbrier on Monday, with fellow member and leader of its pantry, Calvin Davis, nearby. The ministry, which serves 120-130 people each month, became a drive-thru pantry beginning this week to reduce the risk of contracting the respiratory illness covid-19. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Francisca Jones)

Religion on 03/21/2020

Print Headline: Food pantries adapt to halt spread of virus

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