LANSING, Mich. – Recently Bill Ehle, director of the Lansing food pantry Pagans in Need, received a phone call from a pantry in nearby Grand Ledge.
The pantry’s representative “was trying to arrange food help for a person in the Lansing area,” Ehle said. When Ehle requested the standard information, the woman reveled her pantry was run by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, a Protestant Christian denomination.
“She said, ‘You’re OK with that?’ ” Ehle recalled. “I said, ‘You’re feeding people. That’s all that matters. I don’t care what religion you are, as long as you get people the food they need.’ She said she would keep us in her rolodex of helpfulness so that they would have it when they need it.”
These days Pagans in Need, a nonprofit which provides food to people in need regardless of their religious path, also needs help itself, and the pantry is receiving a hand from an Arrowman in the Order of the Arrow.
No, that’s not some arcane Pagan group.
“It’s kind of an honor society for Boy Scouts that you can get elected into by your troupe,” said Billy McClish, a 17-year-old member of the order and a Boy Scout who has achieved the rank of Life Scout. To achieve the next, and highest, rank – Eagle Scout – McClish has taken on a community service project: helping Pagans in Need secure funding, materials, volunteer workers, use of equipment, and equipment operators to design and install a handicap-accessible entryway to its pantry, which is housed in the basement of the Inner Ascended Masters Ministry, an interfaith community center at 5655 S. Washington Ave. in Lansing.
McClish has set up a GoFundMe page to accept donations for the project.
“I knew I wanted to do something within the Pagan community,” he said. “That’s not something that’s really done a lot through the Boy Scouts from what I understand and have heard of.”His mother, Michelle, said Billy, her husband Bill and she follow a “very eclectic” Pagan path and the Pagan community “has been a part of our lives for a long time.” The family is part of the Six Crows Alliance in Twin Lake, Mich., and “we help out with their gathering each year,” Michelle said. “I’m on their planning committee with that.”
The family “put the word out to a couple of people in the Pagan Community” that Billy was looking for an Eagle Scout-worthy project, Michelle said. Their friend Jeff Jakeway, a member of Cedarsong Grove of Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF) put Billy in touch with Ehle.
“This project is going to mean the world to our organization because it’s going to allow us to better serve our clients,” said Ehle, who identifies his path as an “eclectic Druid.” “Right now, if I have someone who has mobility issues, they have to go up a flight of stairs and into the house, and down a flight of stairs to the basement. They have to repeat that to leave, with food. It gets to be a little cumbersome. When we get donations, we have to follow the same path to take everything into the food pantry.”
A direct, dedicated path and doorway to the basement pantry “is going to give us more accessibility for our clients,” Ehle said. “It’s going to make it easier for us to take donations in. It’ll be easier for us to have walk-in service when I’m available to do that. This will allow us to have more visibility. We will have a sign out that says this is where the pantry is at and these are the hours of operation. It’s going to make it amazing that we can do these things.”
The roots of Pagans in Need, whose motto is “May you never hunger – may you never thirst,” go back more than 25 years to southeast Michigan.
“I’ve got stories and stuff around the fire talking like maybe late ’80s or early ’90s,” Ehle said of the organization’s founding. “Back then it was called Witches in Need, or WIN.”
In 2014, he was attending ConVocation, a Detroit-area annual conference for alternative and esoteric traditions, when he noticed a group called Pagans in Need collecting food in the hotel lobby. Ehle inquired about the pantry’s activities with Gordon Ireland, a longtime leader in the Michigan Pagan community.
Ehle also recalled several years earlier when he was a member of a coven, and a coven mate and her partner “had some personal issues and they needed help with food. The whole coven turned out five or six grocery bags full of food so they could make a it through a couple of weeks. It felt good and I liked that.”
Spurred by that memory and the food collection efforts happening right before him at ConVocation, Ehle told Ireland: “You have a pantry in southeast Michigan. How about we put a chapter in Lansing?”
Ehle contacted the pantry and, with the help of the Mid-Michigan Pagan Council, the Lansing chapter was founded in 2014.“We needed one,” Ehle said. “I’m a gay male. My husband and I have been together for about 18 years. We know from the past if you go to certain organizations, if you tell them you’re gay they turn you down and tell you ‘No.’ If you’re a gay witch,” he added with a sardonic chuckle, “they’ll tell you a big fat ‘Heck no.’
“So I decided we needed a pantry up here that doesn’t care what your religious background is, doesn’t care what your sexual orientation is. You need food? We’re going to help you get that food and we’re not going to preach at you. That’s why we did Pagans in Need.”
As for being a Pagan in the Boy Scouts, Billy McClish said, “The main troupe leaders who helped with this project are pretty open to me, so it wasn’t ever really an issue. I don’t project it [his Pagan path], but I’m fairly open. It’s one of those ‘you don’t ask, I don’t tell’ things, but I don’t care if anyone knows.”
“Our particular group is a very open-minded troupe, so fortunately it’s gone over very well with us,” Michelle McClish said. “We haven’t had any issues.”
Pagans in Need distributes food directly to people in need between 9 a.m. and noon on the first and third Saturdays of each month. The number of clients served “fluctuates with the season and the economy a lot,” Ehle said, but typically the pantry provides food to about 10 to 15 families, or about 30 to 40 people a month.
Clients are required to fill out demographics forms “which is just for recording purposes so when I apply for federal, state, and local grants, I can say ‘Hey, this is who we are helping and this is how many people we are helping every month,” Ehle said.
The pantry “is set up kind of like a grocery store,” he said. “We have everything sorted into categories: grains, combination foods, protein, vegetables and fruit, sweets and miscellaneous. Clients go shopping basically. They have a list that says they get X, Y, and Z of each item, and then they check out and we send them on their way.
“We don’t give them a pre-mixed meal box. They get to choose the things they want. If you have someone who is allergic to something or they just don’t like peas, you’re not giving it to them. They are getting things they can actually use.”
At Yule, Pagans in Need conducts a “Secret Santa” program which provides gifts and a holiday meal for families with children. The Inner Ascended Masters Ministry, along with donating its basement space for the pantry, also helps with the Yule effort, as do such organizations as the Wolf Run Wildlife and Spiritual Sanctuary in Remus. Mich., Cedarsong ADF, the Michigan Witches Ball, and sometimes raffles at ConVocation, Ehle said.
The Pagans in Need website also says its sponsors enable it to support the Michigan Pagan Scholarships and The Spiral Circle Pagans in Recovery.
None of the Pagans in Need workers are paid, including Ehle, who works as an office manager at H&R Block. The number of other volunteers fluctuates.
“This is all a labor of love for the community,” he said. “I’m not doing this to make money. I’m doing this because it’s the right thing to do. Most of our clients are Pagan. We get a few who aren’t, and I’m fine with that. That’s what we’re here for – to help the community. We want to show the community at large that we don’t just take of our own, we take care of everybody.”