The Rev. Michael Briese makes his daily rounds going out to various apartments, hotels and homeless encampments in the area delivering food to those in need.
The Saint Mary Catholic Church, Newport priest attempts to learn about the people he meets; finding out their name and phone number, how many people are in their family and how they got to where they are now in an effort to form a relationship with them and in turn be some kind of encouragement to help them get back on their feet.
“From my perspective as a priest, I’m not trying to be a social worker. I have no strategy as a priest. I’m not trying to have any great power or influence,” Briese said, referencing Matthew 5: 1-10 from the Bible. “I really believe all institutions, that this is what we should do as a human race. If he needs food you feed him, if he needs shelter you shelter him and you make him part of the fabric of your community. Do we welcome the stranger into our midst or not and the answer is that we do.”
The Silver Spring native, and self-described “city slicker,” arrived at the Charlotte Hall parish July last year after the former pastor, the Rev. Mark Ervin, unexpectedly died of various health problems in January 2016. Since his arrival, parishioners have noticed a difference in their congregation and joined together to open the Good Shepherd Food Pantry in February.
“He’s humbled everyone in our parish and community so much. It’s opened our eyes so much to poverty and the local need,” Jennifer Batts, church secretary and one of the food pantry’s directors, said of Briese. “Anywhere he can think of he’s getting the word out and delivering food. He’s not calling up saying ‘Do you need food?’ He goes house to house with bags of food and hand delivers food to these people who need it.”
In addition to delivering food, Briese has driven people to job interviews, paid for recertification tests, assisted with a few car purchases, informed those of services they’re entitled to and taken time to talk to those he knows could use a little help or simply a kind word. He enters what he calls a “social contract” with the people he helps. They in turn must lend a helping hand to the next person in line.
“Right now is a period where they’re down on their luck,” Briese said. “If you’re ever going to solve poverty, the poor need to have stability as far as housing. It’s the only thing. Stability is the foundation for a decent life.”
“We’ve been in the church forever and had many pastors and everyone’s been wonderful and I guess there’s something a little bit different, above and beyond what others have done,” Batts said of Briese’s impact on the community. “He’s trying to correct the problem or give them options they’ve maybe never heard of themselves. That’s the difference than just giving them food.”
After the death of Ervin, Batts said the parish felt lost without a leader. “We were dying,” Batts said, adding that about half the parish had left and there was no participation. Since Briese’s arrival and the beginning of the food bank, she said the parishioners have returned and volunteered in droves for the cause. A choir was reestablished and the parish’s ministries and committees have grown and “come back to life again,” Batts said.
Since its opening in February, the pantry has served 79 families, including 247 individuals with about 40 consistent volunteers to run it. The pantry is open on the third Saturday of the month and occupies space in the basement of St. Francis Hall next to the church. The pantry is run by directors Batts, Evelyn Lawrence and manager Debbie Bennett.
Lawrence said she hopes those that visit the pantry when it opens manage to make their way to a few other pantries open on the same day to help them get through the month because Good Shepherd offers an “emergency amount” of food to supplement. She hopes to see the number of those being helped, and those who are helping, grow each month.
“It just made me feel good to see such a good [volunteer] response from the first meeting. When I saw all those [volunteer] sheets filled up I was almost in tears… We’ve continued to grow every month through spreading the word and all of us spreading the word, getting it out on Facebook and the website,” Lawrence said.
In the meantime, between the pantry’s openings, Briese will continue to do the work he feels called to do and inspire his parishioners to follow suit.
“I’m no genius. I’m a C+ student at best. I just have common sense,” Briese said of his approach. “When you’re speaking to a person, you meet the person where they’re at … the drunk guy on the street has a story and everybody has a place in the kingdom of God. The poor man and the rich man, but in the eyes of Christ, every man has a place. The Lord could care less about a person’s liability ratio, powerful or no power, rich or not.”
For more information about Good Shepherd Food Pantry, go to www.stmarychurchnewport.org.
Faces of Community is an occasional series dedicated to highlighting the stories of those who contribute meaningfully to the Charles County community. If you know someone who should be featured, email Deputy Editor Sara Newman at email@example.com.