Pastor’s concern helps feed needy in the Northeast
When working-class people lose work, life begins to feel like chaos.
What helps is a hero.
Pastor Tricia Neale is a former bio-medical engineer who shares a patent on a surgical screw inserted in injured spines. She gave up a high-paying job at the Mayo Clinic to repair wounded souls at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Mayfair.
Using methods both scientific and sacred, she now runs the church as well as one of the most efficient and well-regarded food pantries in the region, to help feed people who’ve lost their jobs.
And for Thanksgiving, a day built around food, she’s made sure the hungry in her charge can at least participate in the most American of feasts, after she and her volunteers distributed endless pounds of holiday bounty.
“We can say at Thanksgiving that God blessed us,” Neale, 41, said to congregants during a pre-holiday lunch last week. “We give thanks every day we get together as a community.
The endless rows of stone and brick houses on wide avenues in Northeast Philadelphia look sturdy enough. But since the recession and its relentless aftermath, a kind of destitution has seeped through these stout walls, rendering the families within vulnerable.
Neale, a 5-foot-2 mother of three boys, aged 14, 9, and 3, and the wife of a Masterman High School English teacher, works in the center of a swirling circle of need.
“People don’t believe people up here in the Northeast are hungry,” said Janette Horner, a part-time staff worker at St. John’s Feast of Justice food pantry. “But Pastor Trish works too many hours a week helping them for it not to be true.”
Between 2010 and 2013, Feast of Justice saw a 30 percent increase in pounds of food distributed, and a 52 percent increase in the number of people served, Neale’s calculations show.
In fiscal 2013, the pantry distributed 424,482 pounds of food, according to Mary Gainer, director of reporting and analysis for the hunger-relief agency Philabundance, which supplies much of the food at Feast of Justice.
Only the Cluster Outreach Center in Pottstown and the food pantry at the Bridesburg United Methodist Church gave out more food among the 200 pantries partnering with Philabundance in nine counties in Pennsylvania and South Jersey, Gainer said.
While many Philadelphians have come to see poverty and hunger as a problem for minorities, it happens that the two city pantries giving out the most food sit in mainly white neighborhoods, anti-hunger advocates point out. At Feast of Justice, 52 percent of clients are white, Neale said.
“Prior to 2008, you didn’t need Feast of Justice up here,” said Marissa Krey, pastor of the Lutheran Church of God’s Love in Newtown, Bucks County, and current board chair of Feast of Justice. People in the Northeast had jobs with decent wages that kept them in the working class, Krey added.
“But the amount of growth of need since 2008 and the start of the recession has been tremendous,” she said. And, she added, the Nov. 1 reduction in food-stamp benefits nationwide by $5 billion “really slammed” the Northeast.
The change is evident in pantry clients’ eyes, which seem to register pain, confusion, and sadness at the same time. Many say they cannot believe they are at a pantry, and watch incredulously as their own hands reach out for bread and meat they used to be able to pay for not long ago.
So Neale has much work to do.
But those who know her say she’s up for it:
“I can’t do her justice in words,” said Tanya Sen,community nutrition monitor with the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. “She’s methodical, a leader, amazing.”
“She’s the most beautiful person I know,” said Ellan Faust, 70, a volunteer whom Neale helped with food and counsel. “She has the strongest character I’ve ever seen.”
“Oh, she’s like Wonder Woman,” Krey concluded.
Concern for needy
Mayfair’s Wonder Woman was born Patricia Guido, an Italian American Catholic in Baltimore. Her father was a computer programmer, her mother a nurse.
They initially thought Neale “wacky” for becoming a Lutheran, according to Neale, who lives in Rhawnhurst. When she entered the ministry, she said, “it pushed them over the edge for a while.”
But Neale’s grandmother Concetta Piccioni, now 88, had long advocated that Neale think about the underprivileged throughout her life.
At first, though, Neale pursued science, ultimately earning a master’s degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Texas.
She worked for seven years at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, helping surgeons learn orthopedic research techniques.
Neale was part of a team that earned U.S. Patent No. 6,668,688 for the expandable screw apparatus for crushed vertebrae. She was on her way to six-figure success.
But Neale was unsatisfied. She and her husband, David, now 42, would spend weekends working with youth groups in Minnesota, the land of Lutherans. The time seemed fulfilling in a way the clinic never did.
One day, giving out mashed potatoes with a group of young people in a soup kitchen, she met a woman who had a job but still not enough money to eat. Her plight tore at Neale, who broke down crying.
“A lot of the call I got to be in the Lutheran ministry came during my mashed-potato moment,” she said.
So Neale quit the clinic, attended the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Mount Airy, and became sole pastor at St. John’s last year.
She takes to her job with an engineer’s exactitude overlaid by a cleric’s sense of mission. She’s a great organizer with a rare gift for making each person she speaks with feel heard and respected, her husband said.
“She’s got incredible empathy,” he added. “I’ve always thought she’s worthy of all kinds of sonnets, at least.”
Under Neale’s direction, Feast of Justice does more than give out food. It offers programs such as parenting, nutrition, and stress relief, as well as a reading-enrichment program for children. There are also monthly lunches, and clothing and toy distributions.
During the pre-Thanksgiving lunch of chicken soup and salad, Neale, an athletic vegetarian who runs for exercise, invited congregants to write their prayers on cards. The entreaties revealed a depth of neighborhood suffering not readily evident:
“Looking for a place to live, my son and I. Pray for us.”
“Pray to stop the devil from the negative things in my house.”
“Pray that I become a better leader of my family.”
Neale prayed with people, then asked what they were thankful for. After congregants listed food and health, someone yelled out, “Pastor Trish!”
Neale smiled, then walked around the room, shaking hands. “Peace be with you,” she told everyone.
People reached out and hugged her hard. Acknowledging their love and need, Neale stood still and smiled.
It looked as though they might never let her go.