There is an eerie feeling about most of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) campus. There are no students in crosswalks, few cars in parking lots and few lights on in the buildings.
But on the campus’ northwest corner, there is a bustle of activity.
A line of cars curved through the parking lot, filled with people waiting to be served meals and boxes of fresh produce by the Baptist Student Ministry (BSM).
Student ministry volunteers line the parking lot. One greets, one explains the social distancing protocols, one delivers food to a table outside, one sanitizes each container before placing it in a bag, one holds a sign that says “BSM Loves You” — and one prays.
The BSM opened Global Blends, the pay-as-you-can deli, in October 2019. They knew then that they were being innovative. What they did not know is that their innovation would become necessary.
Today, amid a pandemic, with a church and university partnership and a newly incorporated drive-thru and delivery service, the deli is feeding hundreds of students weekly.
Robert Rueda, BSM director, sees this as an opportunity not only to serve the community but also to challenge churches to reimagine ministry.
“This pandemic should transform us,” Rueda said. “If we go back to business as usual, we will miss an incredible opportunity. The hope is that the struggle, trial and shifting of our lives makes us stronger as a community of faith. That we come out as salt of the earth.”
The deli is managed by Gabriela Izaguirre, a campus missionary intern.
“Having this job means a lot to me because I have people in my life who have shown me love through food,” Izaguirre said. “I was the kind of student who we seek to serve at one point. I had to stretch $30 or $40 a month for food and gas. And now it’s a blessing to be in this role.”
The BSM started off small selling out of a food truck. After proof-of-concept, the students decided to explore growing into a brick-and-mortar location.
“There is something powerful when faith and entrepreneurship come together,” Rueda said. “Ministry for our students looks like the everyday and I want to equip them for that.”
Rueda had been praying over the vacant commercial building adjacent to the BSM property for years. He saw an opportunity to partner with an expanding local congregation, BT Church, that was looking for a space for Sunday morning worship closer to campus.
“So many students having to decide on whether to use their money for gas or for lunch meant something to us,” said Nick Maddox, associate pastor at BT Church. “The ministry of Jesus looked like feeding people and that opened an opportunity for people to know him. We want to do that.”
The church charges nothing to the BSM for use of the commercial space during the week and the BSM charges nothing for use of their auditorium on Sundays.
However, partnerships have not always come easy for Rueda.
“In a way, I have felt like I have been asked to build an ark and people don’t know what I’m doing,” Rueda said. “Some have told me I’m crazy and that what we are doing is not ministry. But even if people can’t see it, we welcome the fear and take a risk together.”
The university took notice of the deli after it conducted research to identify the rate of food insecurity in the student population. It found that 44.2% of students were food insecure.
“I started with what was already in the community to solve this and then worked to connect the dots for the university from there,” said Jayshree Bhat, UTRGV assistant vice president for the Office of Professional Education and Workforce Development.
During partnership conversations between Rueda and Bhat, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Students returned from spring break facing a new reality. And the university knew student food insecurity would only heighten in this time. The partnership changed but strengthened.
“Little did we know that this was positioning us at such an important time in history,” Rueda said. “We did not know that we were readying ourselves to be a ministry in the midst of a pandemic.”
The BSM staff returned from spring break, quarantined themselves for two weeks, and began preparing to pivot.
They created a texting service to order food ahead of time, made adjustments to serve everything in a drive-thru and strictly incorporated local social distancing protocols.
The university also shifted and began working with small scale, local farmers to have fresh produce boxes made for students to pick up. Together they are part of the UTRGV Food Security Program.
“The partnership is a big step for the BSM,” Izaguirre said. “It fell into our laps and we feel fortunate that our missions align.”
With the university covering costs for produce boxes and providing additional volunteers on distribution days, the deli is financially stable with the pay-as-you-can model along with donations made by donors and local congregations.
“This is a really good partnership with the BSM,” Bhat said. “Robert is a great leader who really understands the big picture and the opportunity that presents itself by partnering with the university at this level.”
In addition to making food available to students and their families, the drive-thru has proven to be a time of needed emotional and spiritual connection. Students, especially those already in fragile social and economic positions, are feeling the weight of the pandemic’s effects.
“We have people who come through here that just need to see a face even if it’s through a car window,” Izaguirre said. “They need to know someone cares and is praying for them. Students are fighting loneliness.”
Things are shifting and changing regularly, so the BSM staff anticipate things to adapt as needed.
“We may not know where we are getting food for the next week or when the social distancing rules are going to change.” Izaguirre said. “And we don’t know what medical professionals are going to say about COVID-19. But we know our love and care for students is not going to change.”