The Rev. Sandra Gillespie has run the Chosen Tabernacle food pantry in Bronzeville for more than 14 years, but she’s never faced a challenge like this one.

In recent weeks, as the coronavirus pandemic has led to shuttered schools and businesses, the lines at food pantries have grown longer. The people running those pantries have had to make difficult adjustments on the fly in order to stay open. Instead of offering an experience that’s more like grocery shopping, Chosen Tabernacle and most other Food Depository partners are now distributing prepackaged bags or boxes of food in order to reduce risk.

Social distancing is monitored by volunteers. Smiles are hidden beneath protective masks. Gone are the handshakes, hugs and pats on the back.

“It feels really strange to not touch my people,” said Gillespie, 63, who is widely known in the community as Pastor Sandy.

Portrait of Pastor Sandy

Pastor Sandy has run the Chosen Tabernacle food pantry for more than 14 years.

But she’s still feeding them, which is no small feat given the circumstances.

Pastor Sandy said she has asked most of her regular volunteers to stay home. Many are older adults, some with underlying health conditions.

Thanks to a unique partnership with a team of University of Chicago data collectors, Chosen Tabernacle continues to serve about 120 households a week.

“I probably would have had to close without them,” Gillespie said. “I am so grateful. … What has been an incredible blessing in all of this is how people are stepping up.”

Increased hardship

In the alley next to the Chosen Tabernacle food pantry on a recent Thursday, Sharon Parker stood in line with her son, Tahari, a 7-year-old boy wearing a Spider-Man cap. Both wore face masks.

Since the schools have been closed, they’ve had a harder time affording food. Though Chicago Public Schools is offering meals for students and their families, Parker said she’s had a difficult time making it to the distribution site nearest them.

Sharon Parker and her son Tahari wait in line for the pantry to open.

Meanwhile, their costs continue to go up, she said. Tahari is a growing boy and needs new shoes.

“They really help,” Parker said of the Chosen Tabernacle pantry. “Every Thursday, I come and get a few items – bread, some fruits and vegetables, canned goods.”

Just behind them in line, Ethel Hood, a full-time pharmacy clerk and single mother, explained how she’s dealt with the anxiety associated with the pandemic.

She prays. She meditates. She tries to stay calm and remind herself: “This too shall pass.”

Ethel Hood works full-time at a local pharmacy.

Her work schedule has allowed her to work from home some weeks. Other weeks she must go into the store, which worries her about possible exposure.

Meanwhile, she’s trying to feed and support her 16-year-old daughter. Hood wants life to get back to normal, she said. But she’s also wary of that happening too soon, which could prompt more infections.

“It’s a blessing to us all,” said Hood, 57, of the pantry. “We thought they were going to have to shut it down.”

Dorene Couch was understandably excited to visit the food pantry on a recent Thursday. It was her first time out of her apartment building in weeks.

Volunteer Franklin Cosey-Gay and Pastor Sandra Gillespie help affix bags of food to Dorene Couch's wheelchair.

Volunteer Franklin Cosey-Gay and Pastor Sandy help affix bags of food to Dorene Couch’s wheelchair.

Couch, 62, struggles with a host of health conditions, including osteoporosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and high blood pressure. Her greatest joy is visiting her three grandchildren – ages 3, 7 and 11 – three times a week. Lately, she’s had to settle for phone calls and Facebook Messenger video conversations.

“It’s been a strain on me,” Couch said. “It’s been a strain on everyone. But the social distancing is important.”

Partners in service

This new alliance between Chosen Tabernacle and the University of Chicago stems from a larger collaborative effort to stem youth violence on Chicago’s South Side.

In normal times, Franklin Cosey-Gay oversees important research as executive director of the University of Chicago’s Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention. The Center is part of the university’s School of Social Service Administration.

Franklin Cosey-Gay, executive director of the Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention, stands for a portrait.

His team of seven part-time workers gathers data from the community on the risk factors of youth violence – such as anxiety, teen pregnancies and food insecurity – and also the protective factors, including educational attainment and home ownership.

Once the pandemic hit, that data collection was put on hold. But Cosey-Gay knew the Rev. Walter Gillespie, Jr., Pastor Sandy’s husband, from the Greater Bronzeville Neighborhood Network, the workforce development arm of an anti-violence collaboration between the University of Chicago, Bright Star Community Outreach and other organizations.

Now, instead of collecting data, Cosey-Gay and his team are serving people in need at the Chosen Tabernacle food pantry.

A volunteer at Chosen Tabernacle Ministries unpacks a box of yogurt during a recent distribution.

It’s not easy work. Last week, they helped unload thousands of pounds of food from the Food Depository. But it gives them new perspective.

“It allows us to be directly involved with supporting a community partner,” said Cosey-Gay, 49. “All of us are deeply humbled and grateful.”

‘Provision for the vision’

Paul Jordan has a unique perspective on the partnership between the University of Chicago and the Chosen Tabernacle food pantry.

Jordan, 58, grew up in Bronzeville. For the past four years, he’s worked for the university, collecting data from the neighborhood’s residents on how to stem the tide of youth violence.

Volunteer Paul Jordan walks past bags of food at Chosen Tabernacle.

And now, he’s serving the neighborhood by helping at the pantry. At the recent distribution, Jordan chatted amiably with the pantry guests. He recognized many of them from growing up “in the hood,” as he put it, and greeted them with his booming voice and hearty laugh.

“It’s been so fulfilling to me, just to give back to the community and see the joy on some of their faces, especially the elderly,” Jordan said.

Vera Woods, 79, picks up bags of food

Vera Woods, 79, picks up bags of food. “This is a blessing to me,” she said.

For Pastor Sandy, the help of the University of Chicago team allows her to continue the work to which she’s dedicated her life. It’s been hard changing operations just to stay open, she said, but she’s grateful for the opportunity to continue serving.

“I’m humbled by this whole thing,” Gillespie said. “When God gives you an assignment, he gives provision for the vision.”