A force of nature, she’s doing God’s work on pandemic’s front lines

January 28, 2021

She’s a diminutive woman whose work is not the stuff of headlines.

You probably don’t know her name. You probably won’t recognize her face.

But ask the people who are lining up for groceries at an outdoor food pantry in a windblown parking lot on Columbia Road in Dorchester as a life-altering pandemic rages on, upending lives, sewing insecurity, and adding to an unimaginable death toll.

They know who Beth Chambers is. They know what she has done. And what she is doing.

Tears leak from the corner of their eyes as they talk about her — about her good and great work.

“I have no food,’’ 60-year-old Lillie Johnson told me the other day as she blinked into a bright January morning sun. “I just need to restock. These are angels out here. I call them angels. And Beth is a star. I appreciate her so much. If they’re giving out awards, call me. I’ll give her an award.’’

Those amens you hear are coming from people who have watched Beth Chambers’ remarkable career of selfless generosity, who know her record of Christian charity, who applaud her can-do spirit that renders naysayers and logistical hurdles unwelcome and powerless distractions.

“She wakes up every day finding a way to help,’’ said Kevin MacKenzie, chairman of the board and chief executive of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Boston. “There’s an old saying that as a society we’ll be judged by how we treat the less fortunate.

“When the pandemic hit, she was a force of nature.’’

That force of nature — the director of Catholic Charities South and Greater Boston for the Archdiocese of Boston — was directing food distribution the other day. There were boxes of apples and pears, cans of low-sodium spaghetti, peanut butter and garbanzo beans, tuna fish and diced peaches.

All of it packed into paper bags, the latest handiwork of a small army of volunteers under the direction of the woman in a pink pullover, a striped button-down shirt, and dark slacks.

“Beth is one of a kind,’’ said the Rev. Oscar Pratt, pastor of St. Katharine Drexel on Blue Hill Avenue. “Beth has a heart for the gospel. It’s all very, very real. Beth could have been anything. But she believes in what she does. For her, it’s a matter of I do what I do because these are my sisters and my brothers.

“That runs deep in her. It’s in her marrow.’’

It certainly is.

Beth Chambers, 62, was born and raised in Albany, N.Y., and is the product of a Catholic elementary school and a public high school education that paved the way for her master’s degree in social work from the State University of New York.

Her life’s road map began at home. Her mother was the director of disaster relief for the American Red Cross in northern New York. As a girl, she followed her mother to fires and disasters and, later, would spend six months working in a Cuban refugee camp.

“I started at the bottom as a soup kitchen volunteer,’’ she told me. “On my very first day, the dishwasher didn’t show up, so I washed pots and pans for 300 people who came to lunch that day. I left there hours later, soaking wet and exhausted. And I couldn’t have been happier.’’

She learned by doing. She figured it out as she went along. She became a leader, the kind of person who makes things happen without complaint.

The kind of people who are now indispensable leaders in this period of tumult and disease, of economic uncertainly and civic disruption.

No one knows that better than Meyer Chambers, her husband, a music minister at St. Sebastian’s School in Needham as well as a Boston College campus minister.

They met in upstate New York in 1983 when she worked at a youth detention center and he worked at a boarding school. They were friends for three years before they began to date.

“A commitment to service is at the center of her essence,’’ Meyer Chambers told me. “That’s who she is. That’s how she’s wired. Her work is vocational. She throws around the retirement word a lot, but when somebody calls and says, ‘I need you to do something,’ or when somebody drops off bags of things on our porch, she talks a good game, but it doesn’t happen.’’

Which explains why she was in that cold parking lot the other morning, forging another piece of the lifeline for people whose lives have been upended by this global viral emergency.

“She is totally the real deal,’’ said Mark Lippolt, who helps coordinate weekend food deliveries. “She rolls up her sleeves. She’s unloading trucks with us in her sneakers.’’

Her work and the work of those toiling alongside her have been bolstered by a 50 percent increase in donations during the pandemic, money needed to help people streaming in for help at a rate five times greater than pre-pandemic numbers.

That accounts for all those boxes of pasta and pizza dough, the bags of noodles, the diced peaches, and loaves of cinnamon bread.

When she speaks with high school kids about her long career, about the days of horror after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, she tells them about what she’s seen and what she’s learned.

“One of the things that I learned in social work school is you never cry in front of a client,’’ she told me. “And you never let them see your facial reaction. I said I failed that lesson miserably and I would do it over and over again.’’

There’s not much time for crying these days.

The amount of food she and her troops are handling on any given day is the amount that used to be a weekly allotment.

“I made calls to people I knew and I said, ‘I need food. I need help. I need people,’ ’’ she said. “I think that all of us were afraid. We knew that we had to get this food out every day. And we knew we had the capability to do it.’’

Except sometimes things went awry, logistics broke down, and best laid plans got hopelessly tangled up.

When that happened, she turned to prayer. She went to church for morning Mass and beseeched the heavens for divine intervention. She prayed to her mother for help.

“I finished Mass and came back here,’’ she said, recalling one of those dark moments. “I was outside trying to do walk-throughs of how we’re going to organize the parking lot differently and better. And my phone rang and it was this person from the United Way.’’

Out of the blue, on the other end of the line, was an offer for cases of food that were quickly directed to where they were needed most.

“I just stood there in tears and I said, ‘You know, a half an hour ago I was just talking to my mother and asked her for help.’ This was like $25,000 worth of food. They had the bags, they had everything,’’ she said.

When that work was finished she called her family.

“That night, I called my brother and one of my sisters, and I said, ‘You know, I just have to tell you this,’ I said, ‘Mom was sitting on my shoulder today. And I’m absolutely convinced of it.’

“And I got the two of them in tears also. I will believe that story and what happened for the rest of my life.’’

For now, she does not yet see the end of pandemic on the horizon. Instead, she sees the hard work ahead. And the good workers ready to do it.

“This is what I want to do,’’ she said. “This is what I need to do. I’m not always the one right down there on the front lines doing it. But I’m here.’’

And then, as the lines outside lengthened, she went back out into the cold, directing the distribution of food.

Doing God’s work. And smiling.

Many thanks to Thomas Farragher, Boston Globe columnist, and the Boston Globe for permission to reprint this story. As noted the photography is by Jonathan Wiggs of the Globe staff.

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