Built in the 1890s, the Methodist church has seen a lot of changes over the years but none as transformative as what's happening now, Viou says, with less emphasis on ritual and more on outreach, offering hospitality, food, clothes, and even a hot cup of coffee to the poor during what is being called the Great Recession.

Many of the people who visit the pantry are like Ines Boyer, 44, who lost her apartment and job as a medical assistant after an illness. Now she and her 16-year-old son are living with a friend. She can't find work, and she's exhausted her food stamp benefits.

"I never imagined in a million years that this would be happening to us,'' she said, crying as she waited her turn.

When the cupboards are bare, which is often, Kimberly Martinez, 21, stops by the pantry for free onions, potatoes, and peppers to feed her sisters, who are eight and 13. Her mother works as a nurse's aide and earns too much to qualify for food stamps, but too little to put food on the table every day.

"Half the time we don't have food in the fridge,'' said Martinez, who, as a last resort, makes "that powder soup, Lipton.''

The pantry opens around 9:30 am on Tuesdays and Fridays, but many people come early, each clutching an empty tote bag. A few days ago, Viou found a man in a thin sweatshirt sitting on the steps outside, shivering. He invited him in, gave him a bag of groceries, and told him to come back the next day for a surprise. He did. The winter coat was green.

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