From the Left



Blessed Mission: From Soul and Heart They Serve

Jeff Robbins on

"In order to serve with dignity, you've got to be organized," says Mary Ann Ponti, director of outreach programs and community engagement at St. Anthony's Shrine in downtown Boston. And on a recent morning at the Shrine, dignity and organization are much on display, as several hundred Bostonians line up for food -- no questions asked -- provided through the Shrine's food pantry. "You have to create a safe environment for people to receive services," says Ponti, whose blend of street smarts and tenderness is the hallmark of programs the Shrine runs to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and offer women's health services. She is, one of the volunteers staffing the pantry says, "a force of nature."

So is the work of St. Anthony's, which, like Ponti, is a godsend. "In other places it might take a year's worth of meetings to get things done," says Ponti. "Here, somebody calls with a need, we're going to jump all over it. The friars pride themselves on meeting need."

On this morning, after the volunteer team has unloaded a truckload of food from the Greater Boston Food Bank, they start with a prayer ("Lord, it's been a crazy morning") before Ponti calls out, "Let's roll!" A long line of people, most from nearby Chinatown, file in with carts or bags to collect chicken, pork, beans, rice, spinach and blueberries. The volunteers, all regulars, greet them warmly. Three of the Boston Police Department's finest, also regulars, are there, chatting away. One of them is fluent in Chinese; he banters with those on line, and they seem to banter back.

The pantry didn't miss a beat during the pandemic, a testament to the collaboration among the Greater Boston Food Bank, St. Anthony's and the blessed souls who show up to help. "The volunteers definitely serve up love here," Ponti says.

The pantry's monthly food distribution isn't the only St. Anthony's program to combat hunger. Its Homeless to Housing program provides food, household items and toiletries every week to several hundred people transitioning from homelessness to some form of shelter. Ponti has a wide network of caseworkers who contact her to provide help making that transition successful. Pretty much the Mikhail Baryshnikov of need-serving, Ponti also spends part of each week walking Boston's streets to tend to the homeless, whom she knows by name. She is not entirely tireless ("My fumes are running on fumes," she cracks) but awfully close.

All over Boston the Catholic Church inspires the community to feed the hungry and organizes to do so. Last Saturday, the Mary Ann Brett Food Pantry, affiliated with Saint Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Dorchester, announced it has raised $1 million to supplement the food supplied by the Greater Boston Food Bank every week that helps 550 families. The pantry is named after a much-beloved immigrant who arrived from Ireland as a small girl then washed the floors of downtown office buildings to support her family.


Father Jack Ahern, instrumental in establishing the pantry in honor of Mary Ann Brett's son Jim, says it is aptly named. "Although she was fairly poor herself," says Father Jack, "she and her family made sure there was always room at the table for others." He marvels not only at the pantry's growth but at the volunteers. "They really are a family," he says. "You see people from across the generations serving food."

Jim Brett, longtime CEO of the New England Council, raised the funds from donors large and small, mindful not only of his mother's life but of Matthew 25: "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in."

These are dark, depressing days in plenty of respects. There's no doubt about that. But then there are people like those who make these food pantries and others like them not merely operate but sing. Theirs is a blessed mission, and they put soul and heart on display in impressive, and inspiring, fashion.


Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast.

Copyright 2024 Creators Syndicate Inc.




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