Church Remains Open as Physical Doors Close

August 27, 2020

While COVID-19 put limits on gatherings and in-person church services, Cornerstone Missionary Baptist Church in San Francisco’s Bayview district has found new opportunities for service through its Pop-up Food Pantry during this crisis.

Minister Damonn White at Cornerstone Church Pop-up Food Pantry“Although our church can’t fellowship in person and the doors for the church are closed, we like to say that the church is still open and we’re still doing the work,” explained Minister Damonn White, who spends his Thursdays at the Pop-up Pantry Cornerstone now hosts in partnership with the Food Bank.

The Pop-up at Cornerstone opened in May, making it the second Pop-up Pantry the Food Bank opened in the Bayview District after the Bayview Opera House. Each week it serves bags of fresh produce, protein, and shelf-stable items to 600 households from all over San Francisco.

The pantry may be new, but food has always been part of the ministry at Cornerstone Church. Not only do they feed about 250 families each year through their holiday food baskets, but they are also always prepared “if somebody comes to us hungry,” said Minister White. “We have families sometimes say, ‘I’ve been displaced, we need food to eat.’ We always have some food on hand.”

Challenges of COVID-19

Cornerstone Missionary Baptist Church has experienced the grief of this tragedy firsthand. When we spoke with Minister White in July, eight of his parishioners had gotten the virus, and one person had died.

Minister White explained, “the sad part of this is that when transitioning of life happens, that we’re not really able to love on people the way we would like to. But we just have to take the safety precautions, you know. We’re learning on a day to day basis, with gloves, masks, social distancing, and it’s tough. It’s tough.”

Their experience is not unique. The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black and Brown communities is particularly evident in Bayview, where 31% of residents identify as Black compared to just 6% of San Francisco’s population overall. As of July, there were 192.91 cases of COVID-19 per 10,000 residents in the neighborhood – the highest infection rate of any San Francisco neighborhood.

Immediate Food Needs

The risk of the virus itself is not the only challenge for the Bayview community. In July, the Human Services Agency (HSA) conducted a survey of low-income San Francisco residents who receive its services. It found that Bayview had one of the highest percentages of people Cornerstone Church Pop-up Food Pantryreporting that they did not have enough food in the last two weeks.

HSA also found that while 34 percent of Black respondents reported food as their most immediate post-shelter in place need, only 26 percent reported visiting a food pantry.

The Food Bank is trying to address this by working with community partners like Cornerstone Baptist Church and the Bayview Opera House to ensure there are food pantries in the neighborhood. But we know simply opening a pantry is not enough. After hearing from local residents that lines were too long, we implemented an improved line management system where individuals registered for timeslots to reduce wait times. And we will continue working with community leaders to improve our outreach to the local community.

In the meantime, Cornerstone is happy to be of service to San Francisco residents far beyond its immediate community. “We want to make sure we meet the masses. We don’t want to be considered a Black church. We’d like to be considered a community church for all.”

And if you visit the pantry Thursdays, you’ll see they’ve achieved this. The Pop-up Pantry at Cornerstone serves a diverse cross-section of people. Thanks to the welcoming environment the Cornerstone community provides, we continue to see strong interest from neighborhood residents in wanting to join.

“For me, this is what it’s really all about. It’s nice to wear a suit and get up and say an elegant speech in front of a room full of people and inspire them to live a greater, a better life,” said Minister White. “But this right here is where the rubber hits the road. For me, I’m a people person. I’m a community person. I like to do whatever I can do to help people. So today and every Thursday, when I’m here, it’s so gratifying, you know, to walk away and know, okay, we actually helped some people today.”

Resilient Bayview Church Rebuilds After Tragedy

November 30, 2016

It was an intense feeling of dread that pulled Food Bank partner Bishop Greg Valentine out of bed at 2 am one fateful Friday morning in August 2015.

“I think somebody I know just died, and I need to go to the church to pray,” he told his wife. It would be several hours before Bishop Valentine would realize his fears were justified.

It turns out a group of vandals had broken in and defiled his house of worship, St. Paul’s Tabernacle Baptist Church in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood. When he arrived later that morning, Valentine was greeted by yellow crime-scene tape and police officers.

“As I walked up the stairs, I remember Sister Beverly Taylor coming up to me and saying ‘Hey, you’d better get it together, they’re all depending on you,’” Bishop Valentine said. But nothing could prepare him for what he saw next.

Listen to Bishop Valentine and Sister Beverly Taylor describe the anguish and joy of their experience.

“The vandals really did a number, bleaching and urinating on the pews,” he recalled. “They spray-painted racial and homophobic slurs on walls and shattered a pair of giant mirrors. Hurtful is deep, but this went deeper.”

That week, Bishop Valentine held Sunday services outdoors to spare his congregation the shock and pain of seeing the desecrated church. His concern soon turned to the nearly 100 people who rely on the church’s food pantry every week. How would they get nutritious groceries when the church had to close down for repairs?

Sister Taylor, who helped start the church’s food pantry 20 years ago, was worried too: “There was a terrible need for people to be able to still go someplace to get something to eat,” she said. Fortunately, partners at nearby Providence Baptist Church Pantry stepped up to serve St. Paul’s pantry participants.

As horrible as the vandalism was, there was a silver lining, said Bishop Valentine. Within days, people with no affiliation to the church, from all walks of life, showed up and started painting walls, replacing the carpets, and repairing the pews.

Funds were raised, repairs were made, and nearly three months to the day from when the vandals struck, the church’s sanctuary was back, better than ever. This past September, St Paul’s Church celebrated its reopening and honored dozens of neighbors who helped put the small church back together again.

The food pantry reopened a week later on December 4th, much to the relief of Sister Taylor and the participants. “They were so happy the first day, to come back into the pantry – ‘our pantry’ as they call it,” she said. “They appreciate what they have every day.”

No arrests have been made, and investigators with the San Francisco Police Department continue to look into the case.

Feeling inspired? Help support our food pantry at St. Paul’s Church – and our pantry network throughout San Francisco and Marin – by making a donation.