Beautiful Gate ~ Interview with Theresa and Bonita

Amory Zhou

It’s Saturday at Beautiful Gate Church in Ypsilanti. Families and individuals are lined up outside, coming in two-to-three at a time, to get groceries for the week. Many of the folks know one another––they may be neighbors, friends, or just people who see each other every week. Some folks are social, talking to one another and catching up, while some are more reserved; a diverse array of personalities, languages, backgrounds, and religions are gathered here.

Orderly chaos is ensuing downstairs. Volunteers are stocking shelves, carrying crates, stacking boxes, opening and closing the freezers, wiping surfaces, and organizing produce. The type of food available is a little different every week. Broadly, there are canned goods (mostly vegetables and fruit), fresh vegetables and fruit, dry goods such as rice or beans, milk, eggs, meat, bread, some sort of desert, and weekly surprises. All of the boxes the food comes in (courtesy of Food Gatherers) are immediately recycled into shopping carts. This is another volunteer job—as folks come downstairs to get their groceries, if they would like someone to carry their box for them, a volunteer will follow them with their “cart” and carry it to their vehicle for them. 

The volunteers fluctuate between the same familiar faces each week, but consistently for the last two years, two outstanding community members have been showing up every week to serve the community, bottom lining the behind-the-scenes work and logistical work. Theresa Puryear and Bonita Wooden, local mothers and educators, and members of Beautiful Gate church. They remember names, allergies, household sizes, and as much of one’s background a pantry visitor would share with them, consistently offering joy and emotional support to anyone who would ask. 

One snowy afternoon, Amory Zhou, a What’s Left contributor and occasional volunteer with Beautiful Gate Church’s food pantry, interviewed Theresa and Bonita on their work with the pantry.

Theresa and Bonita in the pantry at Beautiful Gate

Amory: So tell me about how this pantry got started?

Theresa: Well, it started two years ago. It was a vision of our pastor of the church. He wanted to find another way to service the community and bridge the gap between the community and the churches. Bonita and I took over last year. And we just kinda ran with the vision of servicing the community. We’ve connected with a lot of people who have the same vision as we do: we all just work together to make sure the needs are met.

Amory: What does an average day look like at the pantry?

Bonita: We have maybe three people come down at a time, they stop at the table, they talk to Theresa, give their name, and then we have volunteers to show them what to do. Our produce—they can get as much produce as they want, two canned goods per [type of goods], and so on.

Theresa: Bonita and I greet them; we try to make sure the environment is warm and welcoming––we don’t want anybody feeling ashamed that they have to come shop at a food pantry––we offer prayer if they ask for it, and we just try to meet the needs of all the people who come downstairs and shop. If we know we have larger families, then we’ll give them extra food so they can provide for their children, and that’s pretty much it. I mean, we try to make it as family-oriented and welcoming as possible.

Amory: So like, behind the scenes, the pantry hours are noon to 2pm every Saturday, but for you, when do you get here?

Theresa: [Bonita and I] usually get here around 10am, 10:30am, and for instance, last week we didn’t leave until almost 4:00pm because we serviced so many people. So the time varies depending on how many we get, but we’re usually here at least an hour and a half before and an hour and a half after the pantry closes.

Amory: And so in terms of behind-the-scenes preparation, what are you guys doing?

Theresa: Making sure everything on the shelves are stocked up, bagging up our produce, put stuff out on the shelves, making sure we have fresh dairy products on the table, kinda making sure everything is clean, just like a grocery store––like, you don’t want to go to a grocery store to get food and it’s nasty. So, you want to make sure everything looks great, and it’s clean, and it smells good, and everything is fresh and wiped up. So, y’know, just make sure it’s clean.

Amory: Around how many families does this pantry serve?

Bonita: An average day at Beautiful Gate Pantry is about 80 families––that’s the average […] but as of lately we’ve been serving maybe about 100 families, so that’s probably our new average. At the lowest it’s about 80, and the highest we’ve done is about 175.

Amory: So you kinda have to be ready; you don’t know.

Theresa: Our numbers are still growing, so our goal is to reach hundreds, maybe even thousands. We want to see our numbers just blow up.

Amory: Who comes to the pantry?

Theresa: Anybody. Anybody and everybody. Everybody is welcome. We don’t close the door or say “no” to anybody. So everybody who needs food, they are welcome to come. No questions asked.

Amory: What kind of atmosphere do you try to cultivate in this space? 

Bonita: Relaxed, welcome. But [the atmosphere] also starts with the people in charge. So I know for me personally, I get myself together first. I make sure I have the right attitude, make sure I’m in the right space, and I know Theresa kinda does the same thing too. But with us working together, it has created a good atmosphere for the volunteers, for the people that come down, even for us. I mean, we have days where it’s a little chaotic down here, then me and her have to go into a closet, talk to one another, and we pray for ourselves, and then we come back out and then it’s kinda smooth sailing again.

Theresa: Welcome—we want them to feel welcome; we want them to come back; we want them to be comfortable, to talk to us. We have a lot of people who come to us with personal things and we talk and we give them resources that can help their families. Again, we just want them to be welcome.

Amory: So it takes a lot of dedication to do this every week. What calls you to this work?

Bonita: I like working with people. I really do. I love working and with the different types of volunteers we have, you guys have definitely made me want to be with you guys every weekend.

Theresa: I love doing that type of stuff. Giving back to the community. I’ve been in a situation where I’ve been in need before, so I just love to help wherever I can.

Amory: And finally: how does food availability fit into the strength of a community?

Theresa: We need more. Our pantry can only do so much. The people need more resources. But we do what we can to service and make sure that there is food available. When I order, I order way more than enough, because we want our people to not only be fed, but we want them to be able to survive the whole week––as much as we can.

Amory: Was there anything else?

Theresa: Come on out to see us! We are open every Saturday from 12pm to 2pm at 1225 S. Congress Street! We would love to have you.