Before she died in 2020, one of Samella McKenzie’s final requests for her 10 children was for them to stick together and continue her ministry.
Samella, known by many in the community simply as “Mother McKenzie,” wanted them to keep her food pantry going; the pantry she ran for more than 20 years as part of the All Things Through Christ Outreach Ministry. She founded the organization inside her husband’s West Englewood church, Hopewell Missionary Baptist.
“I told her until my last breath, I will continue to do it until I can’t anymore,” Pamela McKenzie, Samella’s daughter-in-law, said reflecting on that last conversation she and her husband had with the family matriarch. “And that’s what we’ve been doing.”
Not only have Samella’s children kept their mother’s pantry open, but with help from a Food Depository grant, they plan to build its capacity to serve more families – a move described as a natural extension of her vision.
“We need to change the way we do business, and this is going to be a big help for us,” said Gwendolyn Sampson, Samella’s daughter and All Things Through Christ’s director of operations.
Carrying on passion for service
The legacy of Samella and her husband, Rev. Cartha McKenzie Sr., still lives on at the corner of West 66th and South Hermitage streets. Both in a literal sense – the stretch of West 66th surrounding the church has been honorarily named after the late pastor – as well as through the people they inspired. The couple’s children, church staff and volunteers often share stories of their love for their community and neighbors.
Cartha Sr., who migrated to Chicago from Arkansas in the 1950s, led Hopewell M.B. from 1975 until he died in 2018. In 1998, Samella expanded the church’s footprint with its All Things Through Christ Outreach Ministry. The ministry’s main program is its food pantry, which serves dozens of households each week. It additionally operates a community garden, a meeting space for local groups and has plans to one day open a support center for girls. Samella remained active in the work until her passing in June 2020.
With its new funding, the team is remodeling part of the church basement to allow guests to walk through and select their own groceries. The grant will also help pay for to build a new waiting area, ADA-accessible entryway and additional cold storage so they can give out fresh produce, meat, dairy and other perishables more consistently.
Pam, who helped her mother-in-law start the pantry back in 1998, now serves as its coordinator as well as the church’s first lady – her husband Jonathan now serves as its lead pastor. She hopes the improvements will create a more personable experience.
“I try to make them feel like they’re not coming to a pantry, but it feels like coming to your house and getting a bag of food (from) family members or something like that,” she said.
‘I love this place’
For the past year or so, Shirley Johnson has turned to the All Things Through Christ food pantry for food assistance. Her daughter, who lost her job during the pandemic, and her three young grandchildren live with her.
“It’s excellent,” said Johnson, 63. “Last week, they had little orange juices for kids. They had pancake mix. They have all kinds of fruit. All of this helps so much.”
Leonard Bryant, 59, also appreciates the pantry’s support. Bryant, an Englewood resident, said he helps run youth summer camps at a nearby community organization. He also hopes to soon get certified to teach yoga. But between that income and the $35-$40 he receives each month in SNAP, it’s still hard to buy all of the groceries he needs. All Things Through Christ helps put food on the table for him, as well as his sister and 8-year-old nephew.
“I love this place,” Bryant said. “I come every Saturday.”
Before the pandemic, the pantry served 50 to 60 households each week, according to Sampson. Those figures dipped during COVID as other food assistance programs arose in the neighborhood and older adults were less likely to leave home, she said. But its numbers are climbing back up, and they’re hopeful that the expansion will help them serve more people than before.
As the pantry is rebuilding, the neighborhood is also in its own state of transition. According to Pam, many of their former regulars have moved out of the neighborhood since the start of COVID and they have been serving mostly new faces. The local demographics are changing, Pam and Sampson said. A traditionally Black neighborhood, they said they’ve noticed more Latino families moving in. They are working on doing more outreach to these families and recruiting of Spanish-speaking volunteers.
“You have to build trust,” Pam said about serving a changing community. “That’s been the hardest thing, really building trust among the residents to say, ‘We’re going to be here. This is not temporary.’”
Though they weren’t able to see it happen, Sampson said she knows both her parents would have been thrilled to know what’s next for the ministry. She pictured her mother as she was on many Saturdays mornings – laughing, clapping, hugging.
“This was her vision,” Sampson. “Her mission was to provide services and resources that bring hope to a community in crisis. And it truly is a community in crisis. The smiles that would be on their faces – the joy.”