By Leonard Freeman

The Fresh Start Ministry of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Columbia, South Carolina is “the only church food pantry in Columbia that offers Free Choice,” says its Director, the Rev. Deacon Dianna Deaderick, and they feel good about that.

“The baptismal covenant tells us that we should be respecting the dignity of every human being. In difficult times like these — instead of just being handed pre-bagged groceries — allowing our guests to come in and make their own choices from our shelves preserves a measure of dignity—of  self respect. So our lines are longer, but that’s just fine.”

Begun nine years ago by Deacon Dianna, Fresh Start has become the center of a creatively comprehensive ministry, both to its Columbia neighborhood, and in HIV-AIDS work amongst the black community.

In a renovated gym, she and eighteen volunteers reached out with a broad array of resources for transient, homeless and working poor people. Until recently they provided laundry service, showers, clothing, groceries, hot meals, a nurse to check for HIV, hypertension and diabetes, even a volunteer barber. With Coronavirus restrictions most of that has come to a halt.

“For the African-American community this pandemic is a huge issue. Our clientele are already living on the margins,” she said. “The working poor are more at risk than other populations.”

According to an April report by the Commonwealth Fund, counties with large black populations have faced higher case counts of coronavirus, higher mortality, and a faster pace of progression compared to counties with low black populations.

“Things we take for granted…. doing laundry (we did that).. now they’re calling PLEASE do my laundry… and we can’t. People relied on us for showers, six times a month… now they have no place to shower.”

Now Fresh Start can only do food distribution, with a skeletal crew of Deacon Dianna and three volunteers. But as the only church food pantry still operational in Columbia they’ve acquired new partners. “Lowes grocery chain gives us thousands of pounds of canned goods, fresh bread and sweets… partnering with local food banks lets us buy food for only 19 cents a pound, and a local restaurant now comes in to help us provide hot meals two Thursdays a month.”

Fresh Start’s creativity has also enabled it to impact another illness burdening African-Americans, HIV AIDS. Its “Cupcakes and Condoms” outreach offers AIDS testing each Fall for the incoming freshman classes at three historically black South Carolina colleges: Voorhees, Allen University, and Benedict College. St. Luke’s has been recognized as the first HIV Welcoming Parish in the Episcopal Church by the National Episcopal Aids Coalition, and it’s an effort they hope to resume in the Fall.

A retired middle-school teacher, Deacon Dianna, at age 61, views her ministry and that of Fresh Start as part of basic congregational work. “We’ve confirmed some of our clients and now they’re members. We’ve baptized some of their babies… one of our clients is now our church sexton. And when people complement us on what we’re doing, I tell ‘em that God is doing remarkable work.”

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