GREEN BAY — When Deacon Bob Hornacek takes the stage at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s Weidner Center next month, he plans to speak about “the beautiful things I see at Paul’s Panty, not just what we do, but the way we do it and why we do it.”
Deacon Hornacek, who has served as assistant director at the pantry since June 2019, will present “The Future of Hunger Relief Isn’t About Food” as part of TEDxUW-Green Bay, Thursday, Oct. 21. All presentations at the event will be recorded and later posted online.
“That’s the really neat thing about it,” said Deacon Hornacek of St. Matthew Parish, Allouez. “You just don’t share the idea with the people in the audience, but it lives on.”
Paul’s Pantry, founded in 1984 by the late Leo Frigo, operates as a free grocery store for people in need. It relies on support from the community and does not receive any government funds.
For Deacon Hornacek, a former longtime broadcast journalist and investigative reporter, his journey to Paul’s Pantry dates to 2011. He interviewed Craig Robbins, executive director at Paul’s Pantry, for his interview show, “CW-14 Focus.”
“I did that show for eight years. I did more than 200 episodes. The very first show I ever recorded was with Craig,” said Deacon Hornacek. “I remember thinking at the time when I recorded that interview, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to highlight places like this because I believe not just in what they do, but how they do it. I want to bring attention to those types of places.’”
Four years ago, when Deacon Hornacek was ordained to the diaconate, his contract with WLUK-TV Channel 11 was coming to an end. He intended to move into full-time ministry.
“I had it all figured out. God just had to bless my plan,” he said.
Potential ministry opportunities did not develop, and the television station wanted him to continue, so he signed a two-year contract.
“God is much more wise than I am,” he said. “Just spending those two years as a broadcast journalist and an ordained deacon in the Catholic Church, through that combination, I was able to bring Christ. I was able to bring church into conversations, into places that I otherwise would not have been able to.”
During his diaconate formation, Deacon Hornacek volunteered from 5 to 7 a.m. on Saturday mornings at Paul’s Pantry where he said he “had some amazing God moments and challenging experiences.”
When looking for his next opportunity in preparation for the end of his last television contract, Deacon Hornacek discovered a posting at the pantry. He called Robbins, who provided an honest description of the work required.
“I got off the phone and said to myself, ‘Good luck with that. There is no way I’m going to do that,” said Deacon Hornacek, who grew up in the Milwaukee area.
Paul’s Pantry stuck with him, and he said that he received several signs that he was meant to serve there. The first was during a drive to Notre Dame Academy in Green Bay to drop off the eldest two of his four sons.
“I never drove them to school. I think I took them to school twice the entire school year. It was not my shift,” he explained. “Where I live, on the east side of De Pere, 99% of the time I zip down Webster to get on the highway. I was very preoccupied with this pantry thing. I drove through the city of De Pere over the Claude Allouez Bridge. The whole drive I’m having this argument with God about the food pantry. I’m having it out with God. Some people call it prayer. Mine was back and forth lamenting, ‘This is not it.’”
Deacon Hornacek said he felt that, if the pantry was where God was leading him, he should at least submit a resume. At a stoplight during the school drive, a Paul’s Pantry truck pulled out in front of him. He received more confirmation about the pantry in the day before and morning prior to his final interview for the position. Deacon Hornacek encountered the “feed the hungry” message from Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 25, in a book he was reading about St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Teresa of Kolkata and Dorothy Day, during a lunchtime Relevant Radio show and in a St. Matthew Parish bulletin insert. These signs, he said, prompted his wife, Jennifer, to tell him, “I think you’re going to work at Paul’s Pantry.”
“It was my worst interview ever,” said Deacon Hornacek with a laugh, “but, a couple days later, they offered me the job. Everything prepared me for the work I’m doing now. There is just something special about this place. It’s in the people, it’s in the history, it’s in the heart of what it is here. We don’t know who is walking in the door to volunteer or to get food. Sometimes that’s hard for people.”
Deacon Hornacek describes his job as “half administrative and half on the ground in the pantry every day.”
Paul’s Pantry, with its motto “Neighbors Feeding Neighbors,” has remained open throughout the pandemic.
“With COVID, so many places went away (eliminating) any contact. At Paul’s Pantry, we doubled down,” said Deacon Hornacek. “We are going to stay open because we want to serve people and build relationships with them. We are going to do it as safely as possible, socially distance, extra sanitizing and cleaning, have gloves and masks. There is dignity in selecting your own groceries. I don’t want to give you a box of food and have you throw half of it away because you don’t like it. We are here to rescue food and save it from the dumpster, not fill dumpsters.
“We are a grocery store. We will have 100 carts go through today and all will be different,” he added. “We still have limits on some items. We want to give people as many options as we can because there is dignity in that. It means you matter. Your tastes matter. If you don’t like canned peas, leave them for the person behind you.”
The challenge of his TEDxUW-Green Bay talk will be keeping it to the 18-minute time limit, he said. While Paul’s Pantry is well known in the community, he said he hopes his presentation and other opportunities will cause more people to become involved.
“People know it. The breadth of support in this community is incredible, but I’ve also found there are not many people who have been down here to see it, to smell it, touch it and experience it,” said Deacon Hornacek. “I found that, once they do, you can’t help but be moved by the Holy Spirit. Whether that’s moved to volunteer, make a financial donation or a food donation, or to save your egg cartons instead of throwing them in the garbage, at some level, being down here, it moves people to do something. They realize that (food insecurity) isn’t a problem that’s out there. It’s right here.”