The Rev. Dennis Hancock's blue eyes look weary, worried. For the first time in two years, he has to tell families inquiring about Thanksgiving baskets that "we'll take your name. If we get turkeys in, we'll see that you get one."
The Brooklyn Church of the Nazarene's pantry is down to a few cans of green beans, corn and sauerkraut. There is no meat.
Unless food and money starts trickling in soon, Mr. Hancock fears he may have to scale his pantry operation back from five days to one. He does not rule out closing the pantry.
In the past, businesses and individuals were good donors. Not this year. Mr. Hancock blames the economy. Two weeks ago, he and John Cooper, a pastoral assistant, sent out 700 letters seeking donations. They have received one reply, $10 from Mr. Hancock's sister in Buffalo, N.Y.
Jimi McPhail, the church's chief cook, said, "It's real hard when you look at a pantry and know you've got 75 people to feed, and all you see is a few cans of green beans."
A long month
Yet, the people keep coming to this church in the 100 block of Audrey Ave., looking for help. Some are alcoholics, drug abusers, homeless; the working poor and the unemployed; the elderly on fixed incomes; single mothers with small children. In 10 months, the pantry has served 2,500 people hot meals on Sundays alone.
"We're at the end of a long month, and it's been a five Sunday month and we're still seeing an increase," said Mr. Hancock, 48, an ordained minister. On Sunday evenings he may deliver a sermon in a T-shirt, jeans and a Harley-Davidson jacket to make people feel comfortable.
Mr. Hancock is a food provider for the Baltimore City Department of Social Service (DSS). Each month about 120 people come to him with emergency food vouchers. Most don't have cars. Some walk seven miles from Wagner's Point in Curtis Bay to pick-up canned goods they carry home in bags or in pushcarts.
"It would be a hardship on everyone if he shut down," said Judy Bowers, direct services coordinator for the Maryland Food Committee in Baltimore, which contracts with DSS to allocate emergency food vouchers.
The next-closest designated center is in Cherry Hill.
Mr. Hancock, who supplements the small food package that DSS recipients receive with food from his own pantry, has applied for a grant from the food committee. The most he could get is $3,000. Ms. Bowers said she'll ask the committee to expedite a decision on his request. The committee gave Mr. Hancock a $1,500 grant last year, said Ms. Bowers.
"I'd just hate to see him close because it's such an isolated area," said Ms. Bowers. "It would be a hard area to find providers for, to find someone else who could take over at a minute's notice."
Last August, Mr. Hancock incorporated Spring of the Spirit, Inc., a nonprofit food and clothing ministry so he could seek grants to keep the pantry going, while preserving his church's tax-exempt status. But even applying for grants has been unsuccessful this year.
He and Mr. Cooper have each used $600 of their own money to support the ministry. Yet the bills keep coming. They owe $2,000 for utility bills and food bought on credit.
"We've always been able to pay our bills, actually up until September, but that's sort of when things went downhill," said Mr. Hancock.
Still, he is determined to hold on, for he was once in the shoes of those who now wander into his church. He was addicted to prescription drugs and alcohol. Mr. Cooper, 57, was an alcoholic. He now lives in College Park and is studying for the ministry.
Some members unhappy
The church's move into the area of social services did not come without some defections. Many years ago, Brooklyn and Curtis Bay's middle-class families worshiped here. Many continued to do so even after they moved away, said Mr. Hancock. Then, four years ago, he announced his intentions to expand the ministry to address urban needs. Church membership fell from 120 members to 50 members.
The sudden drop surprised Mr. Hancock. Those leaving were the same people who'd helped him win his fight against addiction. He soon found out some members did not want such people sitting next to them regularly in the pews on Sunday.
However, those who remain are committed to the church's mission. They volunteer their time, give money. But the church's membership is too small to support a pantry, said Mr. Hancock, Brooklyn's pastor since 1988.
"They can hardly support a pastor," he said.
None of this has stopped Mr. Hancock, who became a pastor 17 years ago. He wants to provide job training, extend the church's ministry to nearby areas such as Cherry Hill.
"We're trying to reach out into the immediate community and meet needs here, that's one reason we wanted to do the soup kitchen," said Mr. Hancock, who lives near the church. "We've seen some people come through here that we've been able to help get off of drugs and alcohol. They are not all success stories. But we've had some."
David and Pamela Moniger, who both once abused cocaine, marijuana and alcohol, are among those successes. Mr. Moniger was released from a Pennsylvania prison in October, after serving nine months for forging and writing bad checks.
He said the pantry helped feed and clothe his wife and four children, ages 3 to 12, while he was in prison.
Mr. Hancock encouraged him to turn himself in and make the first steps toward straightening out his life, he said.
The church's congregation helped get him a lawyer. Twenty of its members attended his hearing in Pennsylvania. Now, he is back home, working as a handyman.
"I'd hate to see [the pantry] closed down," said Mr. Moniger. "There's so many things the pantry has provided to people. There are many people in Brooklyn and Baltimore who don't have anything."
To reach Mr. Hancock, call 789-4523.