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‘No judgment here’: Church known for Martha’s Pantry marks 40 years of service to LGBTQ+ individuals

Launched in 1984 to help those living with HIV, mission is still to ensure that everyone at the Metropolitan Community Church of the Gentle Shepherd has a sense of belonging

By Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter
Published: April 1, 2024, 6:01am
5 Photos
Ron Minarik, left, gets a hand with his groceries from volunteer John Dibella while shopping at Martha&rsquo;s Pantry on Wednesday morning. The pantry, which is hosted by the Metropolitan Community Church of the Gentle Shepherd, has been serving Vancouver since 1984 and is celebrating its 40th anniversary.
Ron Minarik, left, gets a hand with his groceries from volunteer John Dibella while shopping at Martha’s Pantry on Wednesday morning. The pantry, which is hosted by the Metropolitan Community Church of the Gentle Shepherd, has been serving Vancouver since 1984 and is celebrating its 40th anniversary. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Metropolitan Community Church of the Gentle Shepherd is celebrating 40 years of creating a safe place of worship for the LGBTQ+ community.

The small church — which operates out of Vancouver United Church of Christ in Hazel Dell — opened its doors in 1984 and became known for operating Martha’s Pantry, which serves those with HIV. Staff and volunteers say much has changed over the years — but not their mission to ensure that everyone at the church has a sense of belonging.

“We want people to know that if you need a safe place to be, you can come here. There’s no judgment here,” longtime member Vicki Smith said.

40-year legacy

As visitors pass through the door that leads them to the Metropolitan Community Church lobby, a warm light blankets them.

The light isn’t just coming from the windows but also from volunteers’ smiles and words of welcome.

The Rev. Troy Perry founded the church in the late 1960s in Los Angeles. At the time, he had just come out as gay to his congregation and was shunned by his church and family.

After a failed suicide attempt, Perry realized that God still loved him. In October 1968, he created his own church where no one was exiled and everyone belonged.

Perry started the church in his home. The first Sunday, about 30 people showed up. The next Sunday, there were too many people to fit in the space.

Perry’s idea spread throughout North and South America, until it landed in Vancouver in April 1984.

“There have been a lot of changes. (The church) has moved around a lot, but what stayed the same was the need, and so we’re still here,” Smith said.

The church’s pastor, the Rev. Ken Kerr, said the people who show up each week for service have different sexual orientations and religious backgrounds.

Before moving to Vancouver, Kerr was a pastor for more than 20 years at a fundamentalist church. But once he came out as gay, he resigned from that church and eventually found a Metropolitan Community Church in Los Angeles.

How to Get Help

To find out more about Martha’s Pantry, visit https://marthaspantry.org/ online.

How to Help

Support Martha’s Pantry at https://marthaspantry.org/donate/ online.

“I didn’t know what to expect. I realized they sing the same hymns, the same songs and speak God’s message. … I thought, ‘Here are other people like me,’” Kerr said. “The way we identify the teachings of Jesus is that he welcomes everyone, and so do we.”

As of this year, there are 222 Metropolitan Community Church congregations in 37 countries.

“How many churches recognized that people — regardless of their sexual identity, gender identity —are children of God?” Smith said. “But we still see hate.”

The FBI recorded 1,900 hate crimes against someone’s alleged sexual orientation in 2022 across the United States, up 13 percent from the year prior. About 1 in 5 of any type of hate crime is now motivated by anti-LGBTQ+ prejudice.

In 2023, the Human Rights Campaign documented the deaths of 32 transgender people in the United States; 84 percent of them were people of color.

“People now are still being rejected, mistreated and disenfranchised,” Smith said. “The need for a safe place for people to go is still there.”

Martha’s Pantry

As the church established itself in Vancouver in the 1980s, the HIV/AIDS epidemic roared to life worldwide.

About 46,000 people died of AIDS in the 1980s. People part of the LGBTQ+ community, people of color and impoverished people were disproportionately impacted by AIDS and HIV.

Many living with AIDS were ostracized from their communities.

To help those impacted by HIV, volunteers at Vancouver’s Metropolitan Community Church of the Gentle Shepherd began distributing food to people from the trunks of their cars.

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“They said, ‘We can’t let our friends die. These people are just dying alone, and nobody will talk to them or help them,’” Smith said. “There was so much fear that wasn’t justified.”

Along the way, the food distribution morphed into what is now Martha’s Pantry, a food bank and resource center for people with HIV. Smith has served as the pantry’s executive director. Cascade AIDS Project refers people to the pantry.

“They have amazing resources as a local food bank, and they were started as a place for people living with HIV at a time when HIV-positive folks didn’t always have safe spaces” said Jasmine Gruenstein, director of services in Southwest Washington for Cascade AIDS Project.

The pantry is run entirely by volunteers and funded by donations and grants. It provides food for about 40 clients per month and distributes hygiene items, cleaning supplies and other household necessities.

When the COVID-19 pandemic closed many resources across Clark County, the pantry began to notice people showing up who weren’t referred by Cascade AIDS Project or other agencies. The volunteers served them regardless. Now, the pantry serves those referred by Cascade AIDS Project on Tuesdays and anyone else who needs help on Wednesdays.

Even during the pandemic or when a fire forced the church to relocate, the pantry continued to operate. The pantry eventually moved to a shopping-style model where residents can browse through the selections instead of being handed items.

“People can talk freely here among each other and not feel intimidated and fear from being, you know, disenfranchised here,” Smith said.

James Gregg, a Vancouver resident, plopped a can of soup into his cart at the pantry earlier this month. Gregg has accessed Martha’s Pantry for 20 years and said he felt welcomed there from the start.

“Spaces like Martha’s Pantry are important for the same reason gay bars or other LGBTQ+ spaces are important,” Gruenstein said. “Sure, someone that is HIV positive or gay could walk technically into any spaces, but will they be surrounded by people that understand their identities? Will they be surrounded by people that are not going to judge them based on their health identity?”

She said that although science has come a long way and you can live a long life with HIV, “the stigma is a much longer process to break down.”

“And that’s why Martha’s Pantry is there to keep showing up for that community and be a special and safe place for them to be their true selves,” Gruenstein said.

The volunteers also host panels to educate the community, lead field trips, and attend many funerals of members and friends.

The church and pantry helped a client who was dying complete his bucket list item of seeing a whale. They took the pantry’s van and drove a few clients to Depot Bay, Ore.

“We are all people. We all have shortcomings,” Smith said. “But when you come here, we love you, and you are part of this family.”

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.