From Strangers to Neighbors

A new book attempts to bridge the gap between those who use Chicago’s longest-running food pantry and the well-off residents who live around it. One of the authors and a former client at the Common Pantry, located on the North Side, join us on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm. Watch the following video to learn more, and read a book summary written by co-author David R. Brown and excerpts from I Am Your Neighbor: Voices from a Chicago Food Pantry.

“I am Your Neighbor”
Personal stories from Chicago’s longest continually operating food pantry

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By David R. Brown and Roger Wright

Chicago is a city of neighborhoods with nearly 3 million unique stories.  The Common Pantry has been part of our great city for 45 years, is a member agency of the Greater Chicago Food Depository and provides emergency food to north side residents when they need help making ends meet.  

The authors of I am Your Neighbor have captured the wonderfully moving stories of some of our neighbors who are woven into Chicago’s fabric, bringing to life the root causes of hunger and economic distress in a way that statistics cannot.  Our city and our nation’s food pantries, and their teams of volunteers, provide a great service.  However, one of the first steps to alleviating the problem is recognizing that clients are not anonymous strangers, but our neighbors who deserve our compassion and understanding.   I am Your Neighbor allows each of us to take that first step.


I am Your Neighbor is the story of a community.

It is a collection of stories from twenty people from Chicago’s north side who are clients of the Common Pantry, an organization that provides emergency groceries to qualifying individuals and families.

The book was inspired by the lives of these people who come to the Common for groceries, food and community.  The book was also inspired by those neighbors who at times do not have a complete understanding of who these people are and what circumstances have combined to bring them to the doors of the Common Pantry.

Our clients were thrilled to have the opportunity to tell their stories and we hope that all who read the book will have a better understanding of what it means to be a neighbor in need and how to help their neighbor in need.

100% of all proceeds from book sales will be donated to the Common Pantry to continue their mission of food distribution as well as expanded services during the Wednesday afternoon “Common Community”.

From the Introduction

From a distance, the clients of the Common Pantry were just nameless, faceless people lining up on Damen Avenue to get some free food.  Some healthy food options for their families to tide them over in a month that had seen a job loss. An illness.   A family tragedy.

Seeing these strangers come to the doors of the Common Pantry each Wednesday and line up in the bitter freezing winds of a January snow or in the sweltering heat of a humid Chicago summer, made lots of people nervous.  We who spoke for the Pantry understood that, but pressed to have the folks we were feeding referred to as “Clients” instead of the nasty labels that rolled so easily off the tongues of some nervous neighbors.

That is why we wrote this book.

To give these wonderful people, the Clients of the Common Pantry, a voice.

These and many other stories will continue every week on this corner of the world because of the overwhelming support we enjoy from the majority of neighbors, businesses, schools and churches who recognize the duty to help our neighbors in need.

This book was never intended to be a collection of tales of woe, a coffee table book showing the worn faces of hard lives, or complete biographies documenting a life’s progression and how a place like the Common Pantry can turn a life around.  Because the real measure of how the Common Pantry can change a life isn’t found in descriptive prose, facts and figures on the Common Pantry as an institution. The real measure, the real story is found in the voices of the clients of the Common Pantry.

Every single story speaks directly from the heart of a living and breathing person in our neighborhood who has been fed, often in more ways than you would imagine, by the Common Pantry.  These are personal stories told by hungry, struggling people in their own words.  The success of the Common Pantry is shown in the voices of real people that many of us now call friends.

The authors of this book are not academics conducting research into the root causes of poverty, homelessness and hunger.  We have not done any statistical analyses or sophisticated tabulations or correlations.  We are obviously interested in learning more about these root causes but our research “methodology” was simply to listen to what our neighbors, the Common Pantry clients, have to say.

Our view is that statistics, graphs and tables contribute to the dehumanizing of a very personal issue.  The stories you are about to read will let you draw your own graphs, come up with your own correlations and think creatively about new ways to help your neighbors who happen to be struggling.  While some of the people telling their stories on these pages might be sharing experiences foreign to you, others will be very familiar. 

You will find common threads that run through the stories:

·         Unexpected illness or death of a family member

·         Job loss and economic distress

·         Feelings of being “different” and not fitting in

·         Romantic struggles

·         Long held feelings of regret

·         Chemical dependency

·         Depression and anxiety

Perhaps you’ll see similarities with some of the struggles in your own life. You could recognize the misfortune of having more than one of these events occur simultaneously.  And perhaps you might conclude that the only thing separating you from the folks in line at The Common Pantry is your stronger network of support -- or pure luck.

Holistic solutions must be attempted and little successes must be celebrated.  As nice as it would be to change the world, our focus is this corner of the globe on the north side of Chicago. 

Even this corner has immense needs. Some that can never be met. But what we can do is make just part of one person’s day better while showing them respect and a smile and two.   Or perhaps just listen when the rest of the world does not.

And that’s what we did in this book. We listened.

And we invite you to do the same.

From the Stories

A Working Man

Look hard at Ted. Because if you don’t, you’ll miss him. He speaks in fragments of thoughts.  The connections between fragments seem vague. Choppy. As you listen hard, you’ll realize that there are unspoken messages here too.

Ted begins hesitantly. Softly  with a trace of an Irish brogue.  A slender, gray haired man in a red baseball cap. A scrubbed clean pink face. Often he looks down, not making eye contact.

The conversation begins with his embarrassed admission that the building where he rents a room had been struck by bed bugs. But there’s another message. Unsaid. The message is shame. You feel his shame.

Then another seemingly unconnected fragment. He’s grateful. The man with the bedbugs is grateful. Without the Common Pantry, he’d be hungry. He, a man who has worked hard all his life, would be hungry.  Unspoken, added to the shame, and to his gratefulness is bewilderment. He worked hard all his life and, although he’s grateful, he’s not sure why life turned out the way it did.

He followed all the rules. Did what he was supposed to do. One step after another. Trying to do good. A working man. With dignity. And now: bedbugs, bewilderment and gratefulness.

Serving His Country

Raymond is no stranger to struggle. There always seems to be a new one.  Whether they be small struggles like the broken windshield on his car or large struggles like navigating through life on his prosthetic legs, the need for on-going surgery and managing the monthly bills..

Or even the unseen struggles; all he saw while serving his country still fresh and surfacing from time to time. Yet he is an unmistakable survivor. Crutching into the room he radiates strength. And he begins first with stories of serving his country.

One Wish

“If I had one wish, it would be an apartment.”

Susan breaks every stereotypical image of “the poor, homeless, or hungry.” Like a rapidly and steadily growing number of Common Pantry clients, she is part of the “New Poor.”  Everything she both needs and wants, she once had.  A good, steady, job. In her case, two jobs. An apartment. And of course, food in her refrigerator.

Susan is a recent Common Pantry client who has also attended the Wednesday night meal.

A friendly, engaging woman. Not new to the working world. But very new to poverty

She could be anyone’s neighbor.

His Moment

Gerald says, “So the only moment I have is this moment right now sitting here talking to you. That’s all I have. This is it.”

In a genteel southern accent that still rings with dignity, despite a personal journey through hell; Gerald sits up straight, looks you straight in the eye, and tells his story with the assurance of one who already knows that the act of telling one’s story really can be a force for healing. One of ten children, with a twin brother, he was brought up in Georgia in a Pentecostal tradition.

Closely cropped grey hair, a friendly smile, and casually well dressed, you could imagine him welcoming you into a small art gallery where his newest work has just gone on display.

A Married Man

The expression on his face says, “There is something I am just about to say.”

Hair streaked with gray. Often wearing something that says “Chicago Cubs.” He is always in motion. Never stops. Always at work. He came to the Common Pantry as a client. Started volunteering. Working the only way he knows how. Hard. And reliable. Now he’s on the staff. As we begin, his phone rings.

The call comes in while we’re talking and it’s from her, so he answers as if by reflex. Their conversation is fast in the way that only comes when two people are so close that they almost don’t need words.

What did the Doctor say?
Uh huh……OK.
Yeah……I know.
Don’t forget to bring a bag in the car in case you need it.
See you then.
Me too.

They had  thirty-five years together.

She didn’t just get a cold. She got cancer.

Angels in Disguise

Len has so much energy that she seems to be in motion even when she’s sitting in a chair. She quickly dispels any notion Common Pantry clients are “all the same.” She proves how wrong it is to call Pantry Clients “these people.” Because there is simply no one like Len. No one.

She has already been a featured vendor in Street-Wise Magazine.  Len is proof that the real Common Pantry stories don’t start with the Pantry. They start with the people who depend on the Pantry. Not just for the food. But for a community. A place to belong. A place that will take you in when no one else does.

In this little corner of Chicago, it seems that nearly everything is entwined with Len.  Like, for example, the way Len learned to read with her grandmother pointing out signs on the smokestacks and buildings of the old abandoned movie studio at Irving Park and Western Avenue here in Chicago.

There is No Book For This

 As we speak, she dabs a wet teabag on a blistering burn that circles her wrist like a bracelet.   She radiates intelligence. Yet almost every piece of her story contains some sort of self-effacing remark. At the time of the interview, Flora was at a low point. She had received emergency assistance from Epiphany Church, and was a regular at both the Wednesday Meal and the Common Pantry.

She was out of work, out of money, and feeling alone. Very close to losing her home because she couldn’t make mortgage payments and the management and neighbors wanted her evicted because the six dogs living in her condo with her contributed to the uncleanliness of her home.

The story of her successes have often been two steps forward and three steps back.  Like many clients of the Common Pantry, treating the symptoms at the surface is helpful but the root cause remains.

Eviction and foreclosure were avoided as a result of scores of hours of volunteer assistance and persistent “negotiations” with Flora.

She listened. Guided others in job search. She was there to help when she could.

Flora’s challenges are not over. But she’s also had her successes.

The Builder

If someone were to tell you that Dennis was the younger brother of the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield, you wouldn’t be surprised. A big man. Smiling eyes. Laughs a lot. He punches out his stories with the rhythm of a wizened New York City taxi driver who could get you anywhere you wanted to go. That, and give you the history of the backstreets you’d never seen before.

But, where Dangerfield would be up in front of the room entertaining the crowd; Dennis would be off to the side with maybe a small group or one person.   A person who would go home that night thinking, “Geez, that Dennis. A good man. I tell you, did he ever have some good stories! Great stories.

First thing the guy says to me is, “Nah. . .I got nothing interesting. No story.”

And then the second we go off to the side and start talking, the first thing he says is,  “I put up the John Hancock Center.”   We talk a bit more, and find out that Dennis has not only put up buildings, he’s also blown them up. Oh, and when buildings have caught on fire, Dennis has pulled people out of the flames.

A few Quotes from the Stories

“My goals?  In a year I want my own place and a steady job.  That’s it.  Just enough to be able to live.  That’s all I want.  To be able to go to the movies every now and then.”

“Life was kinda good until I hit about seven.  Then my father got shot and passed.  When I turned 11 my mom passed.  I found her dead in bed.  That’s when things really started to go bad.”

“I got tears in my eyes right now.  I’ve probably talked about this a handful of times.  No one’s ever asked me to tell my story before.  So it’s a blessing to talk.”

“I’ve been blessed here.  Blessed by this place.  The Common Pantry, the church, the Wednesday Welcome Meal.  I’ve been blessed by this place.”

“God is still working with me.  I am still being shaped.  I am a work in progress.”

“I sing all the time.  I play the kazoo.   I feel the music in my mind and I can play it.  It just comes to me.  I can play anything.  I feel it.  I have a short attention span, but I can feel the vibrations of the music.”

“I’ve done factory, clean up, construction.  If it’s work, I’ve done it.  Along the way, sure there were hard times.  Everybody has had hard times.  That’s why the Common Pantry helps.”

“I was here (from Ireland) about two years and I caught polio.  Managed to live with it.  Had to live with it.”

“Abraham Maslow.  I studied him.  Read all of his work,  He said that we have to feel safe.  Feel secure,  Then you need food.  Maybe I come here because I feel safe.”

“I had all these ideas.  I realized I was really intelligent.  But there was no one there to help me out.  I wanted the father I never had to take care of me.  Society was going one way and I was going another.  So I cried.  I really cried when I began to realize all this.”

“If you’re not part of a neighborhood, then bad things happen.  Neighborhoods, like the Common Pantry, are important.”

“I’ve been working all my life.  I’m 58.  I worked since I was 13, I’ve never been without a job.  I really didn’t want anyone to give me anything.  That had never happened before.  I’ve always worked for everything I had.  You lose your job.  No money.  Wife gets cancer.  So maybe I’ll try coming to the Common Pantry.  Just once.”

“I live my life as an open and free gay man.  I had a partner.  We were together for 21 years.  And my partner passed away very suddenly of a massive heart attack.  It was in 2004.  From there my life kinda went down hill.”

“When I tell my story, I feel like I am healing myself.  And this isn’t even half of it.  I got so much to tell.  The more I talk about it – the more I tell my kids – the more it’s a healing process.”

“There is no book for this.  No book that tells you how to survive without money.  No directions on how to get food stamps.  You go into a Department of Human Services Office and they don’t always know.  There is nothing that prepared me for real life on the street.”

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