First Congregational volunteers Barb Greenwald, Lou Betka, Jan Betka and Doris Vrsek fill another shopping bag with items from the church’s food pantry; open the first four Thursdays of the month from 2-4 p.m.

First Congregational Church food pantry reflects mission

IMLAY CITY — Even in the midst of a pandemic, members of Imlay City’s First Congregational United Church of Christ (FCUCC) plan to spend Thankgiving Day acknowledging and sharing their blessings and good fortune.

On Thursday, November 19, church volunteers Lou and Jan Betka, Pat Collison, Larry Smith, Barb Greenwald and Doris Vrsek were busy restocking the church’s longstanding food pantry, which they think will be busier than usual this Thanksgiving.
The First Congregational church has operated the food pantry, now located in the church’s basement, for more than three decades.

It is intended to be a place where local individuals and families can avail themselves of free food and staple items during times of need.

The pantry is currently open the first four Thursdays of every month from 2-4 p.m. to serve the needs of people who reside within the Imlay City School District.

Despite the ongoing challenges we all face to keep safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are some experiencing greater need than others—which is where FCUCC’s food pantry is particularly helpful.

Volunteer Larry Smith said his participation with the food pantry has enlightened him to the needs of others.

“It’s a way for us to give back to the community, but it also gives us a better understanding of the needs of others.” Smith said. “It has opened my eyes to realize that so many people out there have real need.”

Doris Vrsek described the food pantry as “an extension of the congregation’s faith and their shared mission to serve Jesus Christ.”

“Of course we sometimes become sidetracked,” she said, “but we can all be thankful this Thanksgiving that we are able to help other people who do not have the blessings that we do.”

Lou Betka said the church has provided him the opportunity to remain faithful and stay grounded during current times.

“Some of my very best friends in life have come from this church,” he said. “Some of them stay and some leave, but we will always remain friends.

“This church is a second family for our family, including for my three grandchildren, who unfortunately we may not be able to see this Thanksgiving.”

Pat Collison, who along with her husband, Dennis, have been longstanding members of the congregation, recalled the impression the food pantry had on her grandson many years ago.

“Dennis wasn’t able to help out at the pantry one day and my grandson, who was 14 at the time, came in to help,” Collison remembered. “It turned out that one of the men who came in for food that day had been his baseball coach.

“That experience made him more keenly aware that there are always people experiencing need and hardship, and that sometimes those people are those we might not expect.”

Jan Betka stressed that church members welcome all who come to the food pantry for assistance; many of them who reside within walking distance.

“You need not feel nervous or apprehensive about coming in and asking for help,” she said. “You can always come here and feel welcome. We do not pass judgement.”

First Congregational Pastor David Forsberg noted there is a food box located outside the church, where people can take from or drop off food items.

“The second commandment teaches us to love our neighbor as thyself,” said Forsberg. “That’s what this church is all about. Our mission is to see the face of Jesus in all of us.”

Pastor Forsberg shared a personal message for all this Thanksgiving.

“Thanksgiving this year, especially given the events that have transpired, is about appreciating what we have,” said Forsberg. “We have much to be thankful for in family and friends and everyday people who help us.

“It’s about recognizing what God has and continues to provide us,” he continued. “God is in our midst through creation and people around us and despite any hardships or challenges we face.

“God created us. We are wonderfully made. God loves us and asks that we reflect that love back on others. And we are never alone in God and Jesus Christ.”

Food pantry origin

Though the First Congregational United Church of Christ has been ministering to Imlay City residents since 1876, the food pantry dates back about 30 years.

Forsberg noted that the panty began when Janet Ritchie, the church’s pastor at the time, set up a few shelves outside the church’s nursery room for food that had been purchased.

It wasn’t long after that families in need living nearby were able to access free food items.

“Once church members began filling the shelves of an empty church classroom with food items, the community’s involvement took off.”

For some time, volunteers from other churches and members of the local Society of Hope & Charity shared responsibility for stocking and distributing food items at the pantry.

Forsberg said the pantry benefitted from the participation and generosity of local farmers, who regularly donated to the pantry.

“The local farmers donated beef, pork and chickens to pantry,” he said, “while the local garden farmers provided carrots, potatoes and other produce.”

The pantry also received support through various fundraisers, such as the annual Crop Walk, which helped raise funds to purchase food items for the pantry.

Over the years, the food pantry has received widespread support from local businesses and civic organizations, including the Imlay City Lions and Rotary clubs, Imlay City High School’s National Honor Society, local Boy and Girl Scouts, the Goldwings Motorcycle Group, Kroger Foods, (the former) Farmer Jack, Imlay City Area Chamber of Commerce, Vlasic Foods, an annual food drive sponsored by the Imlay City Post Office, and other sources of support.

Tom Wearing started at the Tri-City Times in 1989, covering the Village of Capac as a beat reporter. He later served stints as assistant editor and editor. Today, he covers Imlay City and Almont as a staff writer. He enjoys music and plays drums and sings with various musical groups in the Detroit Metropolitan area.