Volunteers…a faithful and abiding presence at Emmaus Ministries

Emmaus has never wanted for volunteers. Over 300 volunteers assist at the pantry, Kids Cafe, and soup kitchen on a regular schedule to make sure the hungry of Erie are fed. But what about volunteering during a pandemic when exposure to the homeless brings great risk?

“I called the volunteers and told them that if they had the slightest hesitation about jeopardizing themselves or their loved ones, they should stay home,” said Sister Mary Miller, director of Emmaus. “Many of our volunteers are elderly and in the high-risk group if they get the coronavirus. A lot of parents were self-quarantined because college children had returned home. We take precautions, of course, but it’s still risky. Yet so many were willing to continue.”

Why? What motivates a person to put themselves at risk for others? Debbie Shoup, a full-time volunteer at the pantry explains, “We’ve gotten to know our people and what they go through in normal times. These added issues and restrictions make their lives even harsher. You can see the panic on their faces. We keep changing the way we have to distribute the food, but we smile and say, ‘it may change next week’ but we’ll be here!’” Volunteer Priscilla Richter summarizes, “Our folks are vulnerable so I’m grateful we can stay open with the Food Bank’s help.”

Brian Martin, who was loading packed boxes of food on the distribution table adds, “I like working here, helping people. It breaks my heart,” he said, tearing up, “to see them. The Bible says we should help one another as much as we can.”

Many volunteers are like Jim Vogt, a truck driver for the pantry, who see themselves in a new light, “We are first responders now. People need this food.” While volunteer Jean Metzler addresses a personal need, “It gives me a reason to get out of bed in the morning.”

But what about fear? How do the volunteers deal with it? While packing hot meals in containers to distribute at the soup kitchen, Julie Sanner admitted, “Yes, I’m scared, but I wanted to do something.” And Deb Foyle, another volunteer added, “They need us. That’s the driving force. You vacillate now, but you have to do what is right.”

A deep sense of empathy for the suffering motivates these volunteers. So does living their faith, finding personal meaning, and mining the best of themselves in a time of crisis. And as for fear, isn’t fear half the definition of courage? As in cowboy actor John Wayne’s definition: “Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.”

Perhaps the most disarming answer to the question “why are you still volunteering?” came from volunteer Carl Larese. He said simply, ‘It’s my day to volunteer at the soup kitchen.”

Here’s to the thousands of front-line volunteers like Carl who are everywhere in this pandemic. Here’s to abiding faithfulness without any trumpet flare. Here’s to the quiet heroes whose very presence in places of risk attests: “I’m here because I can be…and I promised I would be.”