Serving at the food pantry at Gulfview Grace Church, New Port Richey, Fla. (Paul Poyner, lead pastor), is not new for Bob and Lynn Shaffer. But with the advent of the Coronavirus pandemic and a new partnership with Feeding Tampa Bay, the number of families served has more than tripled.
Until this spring, 20 to 25 volunteers served 150 to 200 families at the Gulfview Grace food pantry on the north side of the Tampa metro area. A partnership with Hopeville Family Ministries, another local pantry, allowed the church to access significantly more food for the families they served.
Each Friday would open with a hospitality time complete with coffee and pastries before patrons could “shop” for items from a variety of stations offering breakfast items, canned goods, snacks, bread, produce, beverages, and pasta or rice.
“This gave us the opportunity to connect with our pantry families,” Bob says. There would be time for light conversation and prayer before opening the doors to the pantry.
“The feedback was consistently positive,” he remembers. “Giving people the opportunity to choose their food brought dignity back into a pantry setting.” He also noted that many of the pantry recipients have joined Gulfview Grace and some have become pantry volunteers themselves.
The pandemic changed everything. “We moved to a drive-through pantry in March,” Bob noted, with prefilled boxes of food available for distribution. “We have lost our ability to connect face to face, but each week we encourage them and let them know how we can’t wait to move back inside and pick up where we left off.”
In April, the pantry was designated as the Pasco County distribution point for Feeding Tampa Bay. A truck arrives between 6:30 and 7:00 a.m. each Friday with thousands of pounds of fresh produce, meat, and bread along with various other items. Bob expects this partnership to extend until at least June.
The church staff, including pastors Paul Poyner, Dustin Zerwas, and Mark Trumble, have jumped in when volunteers have felt they can’t participate due to health issues.
“Pastor Paul has even taken the time to step aside to talk with some of our families who are struggling through these difficult times,” notes Bob. “He takes the time to pray with them and comfort them, reflecting God’s love in his words and actions.”
It’s an environment the couple felt more than four years ago when they began attending the church after moving to the area from Sarasota. Invited by neighbors in their condominium complex, the first Sunday happened to feature VBS (vacation Bible school).
“We were immediately enamored by the family atmosphere of Gulfview,” says Bob.
As the couple began to explore opportunities to serve, “Our food pantry seemed like a good start,” he remarked. “Both Lynn and I served initially and then Lynn found other areas in the church that she felt better suited for. Pantry at that time was serving 40-50 families per week. Our offerings were often limited to bread, pastry, and occasional canned goods.”
While Lynn had served in other ministries, eventually the two partnered with several other couples in the church in a newly formed food pantry committee. It was the culmination of a commitment they had made a short time earlier.
“We took the plunge and jumped in with both feet because it is what we ‘promised’ our Lord we would do if called,” he remembers. “You see, it was just a few weeks earlier on September 23, 2018, that my wife and I were both baptized at Gulfview Grace Church by Pastor Paul. We knew that moment was life-changing! We made a commitment that Sunday to love and serve our Lord and Savior…and He knew just where our life in His service would begin.”
The couple put their entrepreneurial experience in reorganizing the pantry. “It requires organizational skills, people skills, a vision for growth, and a good deal of sweat equity,” says Bob. “We were thrilled to have found our niche in the Gulfview family.”
He adds, “We also know that serving those in need is anchored in the Bible. We remind our volunteers that we need to reflect our Lord in our words and actions.” The couple’s involvement is also rooted in their own experiences when their families needed help. “We know what that feels like. We both have a lot of compassion for those who are struggling.”
They want others to experience that family atmosphere. “We encourage our families to join our live stream if possible, on Sunday so that they can share in the Word and continue to feel a part of our Gulfview Grace family,” concludes Bob, “because over the past two years, that’s who they have become, part of our family.”
The words “family” and “home” permeates their conversations with food pantry clients and is emblazoned on the shirts they wear, notes Pastor Paul Poyer. “‘Welcome Home.’ And the word Home stands for Hope. Opportunity. Ministry. Encouragement.”
“Bob and Lynn are humble giants in our church family, that genuinely love people out of an overflow of their love for Jesus,” adds Pastor Paul. “They both regularly demonstrate the gift of mercy and have been blessed with great leadership abilities. With 25 amazing volunteers gathering weekly to pack and distribute food care packages and our entire church family regularly donating food, our food pantry has been one of our most effective ministries at bringing the entire church family together.”