Feeding the body as well as the soul in Mobile during the COVID outbreak

Apr 24, 2020

An Alabama Public Radio news feature, which is part of APR effort to address the "news desert" along the state's Gulf coast. APR recruited and trained veteran print journalists in Mobile and Baldwin counties to join our news team to do radio stories from along the Gulf coast.

The streets around downtown Mobile are mostly empty these days. Residents are staying at home to avoid being exposed to the Coronavirus. But on Tuesdays, cars line up in the right lane of Dauphin Street outside Central Presbyterian Church. There, the drivers wait for hours. It’s not spiritual nourishment these Mobile residents are seeking at Central Presbyterian.

Pastor Chris Bullock
Credit APR's Lynn Oldshue

“I talked to a lot of people in line and it hurts my heart that a lot of them didn't want to be there,” pastor Chris Bullock said.

His church was founded in 1846. It lost most of its congregation as people left midtown to West Mobile. The church’s doors stayed open however as it reinvented itself. Unused rooms turned into artist studios, headquarters for nonprofits, and a photography darkroom. It’s also a food pantry that served 100 families a week.

That was all before the coronavirus hit. Then, people in the Mobile area started losing their jobs. Now, the number of cars lining up outside tripled and the food pantry converted to a drive-thru so it could keep running.

“They were just like ‘How did I end up here?’” Bullock said. “They didn't have a safety net before, Now with this happening, all of this will be exacerbated. The economic damage will be long term in these neighborhoods and that doesn't get fixed easily.”

Volunteers fill boxes with bags of potatoes, eggs, milk, fresh fruits and vegetables and 10 pounds of sliced ham provided by the relief group Feeding the Gulf Coast. Today’s helpers at the food bank are members of Rainbow Mobile and Prism United. Drivers pull up. Volunteers ask how much is needed The groceries are loaded up and the visitor drives away.

Central Presbyterian Church food pantry volunteers from Rainbow Mobile and Prism United
Credit APR's Lynn Oldshue

“It’s not one area, one race, one anything, it’s across the board,” said Connie Guggenbiller, the director of the food pantry. “I worry about ones with children who can’t get on the bus and come to us for food or the elderly who can't drive. Who is taking care of them? What’s happening to them, you know?”

She want to remove the stigma of receiving food, and making sure the food is what she would eat herself. Bullock warns that Mobile needs more than food pantries to help the poor through this time.

"Doing a better job with this crisis and poverty in Mobile will reap rewards for our community past COVID 19,” Bullock said. “I want us to have a conversation in Mobile about helping each other and why we need to do things to stabilize the community.”

Mural at Central Presbyterian Church by artist Kathleen Kirk
Credit APR's Lynn Oldshue

Some of the volunteers take boxes of food home for themselves. Others turn down a box, so it can go to others who need it more. During today’s visit, everyone passes an unfinished mural with an outlined hand holding a sign that reads, "All Are Welcome." The painting is a celebration of community by artist Kathleen Kirk. She said the church hopes the community will one day add the colors that bring it to life. It’s that sense of community that Bullock is working to supply, one box at a time.