School of Social Work

No. 28 M.S.W. Program in the U.S.


A Community Connection: Social Work & Church Partnership    Kendall Martin

As a member of St. Thomas’, Richmond, and a Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work associate professor, Sarah Kye Price understands the importance of food pantry ministry in the City of Richmond. What Price was not expecting, however, was how transformative an experience volunteering at the St. Thomas’ pantry – and witnessing first-hand the impact on both clients and volunteers – would be. There is a “deep sense of community and radical hospitality that is compelling,” said Price, and as a social worker, she felt she should have known “that this is not just a ministry – it’s just as important to the people who volunteer.”

After her initial experience with the pantry, Price committed to volunteer one Thursday a month. One Thursday turned into several, and soon she started to see the social work pieces that weren’t being addressed. Whether people were facing eviction, in need of heating or energy assistance, or new mothers without proper resources, Price recognized disconnect between what food pantry ministry offered and what the community needed.

At a vestry meeting earlier in the year, Price offered the idea of incorporating a social work student placement as part of a resource and information offering at the pantry. Submitting a job description to the School of Social Work Office of Field Education, Price knew this placement was a stretch from anything the social work school had done before.

VCU senior Ryan Land is the first to fill the position. To make sure that Land met the 14-hour minimum requirement of his program, Price initiated a collaboration with nearby Ginter Park United Methodist Church, St. Paul’s Catholic Church and St. Philip’s Episcopal. While a faith-based work placement, Price sees this program as being very ecumenical. Although the focus is not on the religious aspect, “We do talk about the integration of faith and justice.”

Creating a bridge between the individual church ministries has allowed this first-year project to reveal the differences in client populations and the effects of the different systems of churches on the food pantry, and allowed Land to research what people really want and need out of the ministry. Each Thursday after the pantry has closed, church and client volunteers, along with Land and Price, sit together over a bowl of soup and discuss ways to streamline the pantry and offer better services to those in need. After lunch, Land and Price join VCU School of Social Work alumnae, Jennifer Amos and Kristin Cummings, congregational social workers, for a “process recording.” In these recordings, Land talks about everything from the clients he has encountered and the differences in the food pantry models, to addressing the system barriers that exist for clients from a social work perspective. For Land, the most rewarding aspect of this placement is “all the different kinds of experiences you encounter,” and “the chance to work in a church with the same values as me.”

For Price, this partnership is a true meeting of vocation and faith. “Social work traditionally is social and economic justice, but that’s just not a secular thing. That hits our faith communities, too.” The addition of a social work volunteer within a food pantry is about “dignity and worth of person” and while this program is about the food pantry, it is also about “how you advocate in your community.”

Categories Alumni, Community, Faculty and staff, Students