When I arrive, the street outside Casa De Barro Free Methodist Church at 3811 Mission St. is almost completely empty. A couple of people wait for the bus and an older gentleman leans against the bright red church walls in quiet contemplation. The big wooden doors seem stuck. Maybe there is another entrance?
Then suddenly, Pastor Miguel Nunez swings through the doors with an exuberant “Welcome!” and proceeds through the building into the sunny community room, filling up the space with a story about his incredibly busy week.
Earlier in the day, Paul Ash, executive director of SF-Marin Food Bank, had talked about the pastor’s manner saying, “He has a gentle demeanor that pushes forward, toward you.
“People like to have that sense of someone who can be trusted, someone who does what they say they’re going to do and also a sense of a person who is outreaching, rather than waiting for you to come to them. He really has those best qualities, all together.”
Those qualities, Ash says, is what led to the Food Bank inviting Nunez to be the guest of honor at its annual “One Big Table” fundraising event tonight where more than 400 donors will enjoy a 5-star dining experience in the Food Bank’s warehouse. The pastor and his congregation have worked with the Food Bank since 2008 and now serve 319 households that include 1,031 people.
“It is such a big event,” the pastor says. “And I have to give a speech… in ENGLISH!”
English isn’t the pastor’s first language, so he is a bit nervous. He’s put a lot of effort into practicing his speech since there are some important points that need to come across to the donors, he says. As Ash explained, it’s easier to get donations in hard times like in 2008. Now that the economy is in an upswing people tend to forget those who don’t reap the benefits.
The pastor found his own vocation early on.
He was seven years old when he first stumbled onto a Sunday School session in his small hometown in Uruguay. His mother wasn’t religious at the time but allowed him to go to church on the condition that he would do well at school.
From that young age Nunez fostered dreams of becoming a priest but took “the safe route” by studying international business at university and theology on the side. When his education was upset by a two-year faculty wide strike, Nunez’ long time pastor introduced him to “Uncle Ben” – the pastor’s brother in law who ended up buying Nunez’ tickets to California and opened his home to him. He landed in California on July 4, 2004.
“I arrived and that night they said: “Let’s go see the fireworks!” I will never forget it.”
Eventually Nunez moved to San Francisco. He finished his degree in theology online, first serving in a church on 24th and Valencia before starting a Spanish speaking congregation and moving to Casa de Barro. Then in 2008 the economic crisis hit.
“We decided to open our doors to the community by having a pantry and working with the Food Bank,” Nunez says. “In the beginning we had 800 people every Saturday coming from many different parts of the city.”
Since then, the system has changed. Now households are registered with the Food Bank and each one is assigned to a food pantry in or near their neighborhood. At the time Nunez had more than 50 volunteers coming in every Saturday. These days, around 20 come to help hand out supplies but the pastor makes sure everybody gets their rest by closing the pantry for one Saturday each month. Many of his volunteers come from outside his 60 member congregation.
“We are like a family,” Nunez says of the diverse group of volunteers.“We take care of each other.”
Walking around, the Pastor excitedly points out all the different volunteers in the clusters of photographs that line community room’s walls – carrying produce, laughing, cleaning and even working the barbeque for the annual Christmas party.
“After we started this program, we started getting other things from the community,” Nunez says, leading the way out of the room to a small door. He pushes it open and steps inside a room filled with shoes and clothes from the floor to ceiling. “So we decided to open a “garage sale”.”
They don’t price the items, people pay what they can and their donations help pay for coffee, carpet cleaning and other costs that come as a byproduct of the food pantry.
“I wanted to call it something biblical,” Nunez says of the makeshift thrift store. “But the volunteers call it Little Macy’s,”
It hasn’t all been easy.
“You know; people tend to complain. One day I said: “I think I want to close the pantry. I’m tired with this, I’m tired with that.” So my wife reminded me that you can’t just think about one person or experience, you have to think of the whole.”
Not long after that conversation, Nunez says a woman came to him. She was raising her teenage son on only $900 a month. Making it through the week after the pantry closed was difficult.
“She said:” ‘This is a big thing for me.’,” Nunez says and he pauses.
“Sometimes we are very tired, but we feel something inside in helping others.”
The pantry also enables them to reach out to those in spiritual need.
“Thank god for this, that we can help a little. We cannot do the whole thing but we can help these people have better days.”
Back in the community room, the pastor reflects on the day when Ash came to the pantry to tell him that he would be honored at “One Big Table”.
“At first I thought that maybe we did something wrong,” Nunez says laughing, adding that he never would have suspected the Food Bank would celebrate the pantry in that way. “It is a great honor.”