ST. PAUL, Minnesota — Mike Stapp of All Saints Parish in Lakeville, Minnesota, went to University Avenue in St. Paul May 29, the day after protesters and rioters ransacked and looted stores and businesses following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers earlier that week.
He expected to view rubble and ruin — and he did.
What he didn’t expect to see was hope. But there it was, in the form of hundreds of people from the neighborhood pushing brooms and beginning a massive cleanup in the wake of a collective outburst of anger over racial injustice in the days after Floyd’s death.
As he drove down University Avenue, Stapp, who is white, spotted an African American couple working alongside their young son. Stapp, 38, rolled down his window and asked the mom why they were there.
“I live here; this is my neighborhood,” Stapp recalled her saying. The woman wanted to come and help. And, she wanted her family to be a part of it.
That prompted Stapp, an unemployed father of four children age 6 and under, to ask himself a question: What can I do?
The question kept nagging at him. A day or two later, he went to a street in south Minneapolis, an area the rioting hit even harder, to survey the damage there and help clean up. Again, he saw scores of volunteers, including families with children as young as his, which intensified his conviction and led to this thought: “We’ve got to do something.”
So, he did. In the next several weeks, he helped organize a large food and supply distribution that took place June 27 at a boarded-up Kmart, which carried over to St. Matthew Church in St. Paul later in the day, near where he used to live. His small step of faith helped put food in the hands of hundreds of needy individuals and families.
The idea came on a Monday morning one week after Floyd’s death.
Having worked in sales for more than a decade, he decided to employ one of the industry’s common practices: Cold calling. He wondered if he could reach out to companies and nonprofits to procure food for south Minneapolis residents who had lost several major retail stores to the riots, including Target and Cub Foods.
He hit pay dirt on his first attempt.
“I had been intrigued by this company called Food Rescue US,” Stapp told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “I saw what they were doing about food rescue prior to this.”
The organization uses technology to connect businesses like restaurants and grocery stores that have excess food to those who need it. Volunteer drivers pick up and drop off the food.
When Stapp reached out, he ended up on the phone with Food Rescue US’s vice president, Melissa Spiesman. She told him the organization had just started working with the USDA Farmers to Family program, which acquires produce from farmers and puts together 25-pound boxes of food for pickup and distribution to the needy.
She offered him a semi-trailer load — 40,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables — for free.
Too much food to handle, he thought. He asked if he could take a smaller amount, like 50 boxes. Nope, she replied. All or nothing.
“I kind of (was) resigned in my mind: That’s just not possible,” he said. “I don’t know how we can get rid of that many boxes of produce, and we don’t have refrigeration.”
He also didn’t have help at that point. But, he stayed on the phone with the vice president, who offered to have her organization drop off the produce anywhere he wanted.
At that moment, he chose to make a simple act of faith. He told Spiesman, “Tentatively, let’s call it a yes.”
After he hung up, he feverishly started calling churches in south Minneapolis to find a parking lot for the food drop off. He got a “yes” from Father Joe Gillespie, pastor of St. Albert the Great in Minneapolis.
“We knew that if we could get food out there and get it into the hands of the people that were affected by all this, that we were doing something (meaningful),” Stapp said. “We were, at some level, the hands and feet of the Lord. And, maybe that brings joy for a day or a week. We can’t solve a lot, but we can do something.”
Stapp then recruited volunteers to help distribute food, calling his fellow members of the lay Christian community People of Praise. One of them suggested using the boarded up Kmart as the distribution point. Stapp also learned Peter Wohler, director of a Twin Cities charitable organization called Source MN, was organizing a food drop the same day, June 27, and he was able to join in on that.
The event was a huge success. Scores of volunteers came, and Stapp, along with Source MN, which is a nonprofit serving the poor and victimized, provided food boxes for every person and family in need who came.
Recipients also grabbed donated personal care products, diapers and even KN95 masks. Icing on the cake was giving donated Hasbro board games to children. With food to spare, he then distributed several hundred more food boxes that day at St. Matthew on St. Paul’s west side.
Looking back on one month’s worth of effort to provide food and hope to people who now live in the wake of an estimated $500 million in damages to property and businesses, Stapp’s takeaway is simple.
“Have a heart for people and use your gifts,” he said. “Even if it’s small, even if it’s literally picking up the phone. The Lord can use it. And, in my case, thank God he did.”
“I knew that I had to take a step,” he added. “And I realized when I took that step, the Lord was there every step in front of me, and we just kept walking. … I was just really captivated by the fact that there is hope.”
Hrbacek is a staff writer for The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.