LONG BEACH - Margo Martinez says the volunteers at the AIDS Food Store of Long Beach were "given a gift" to help individuals with HIV or AIDS.
For 27 years, the AIDS Food Store, which is located at Christ Chapel of Long Beach, has operated a free weekly or bi-monthly food distribution. Participants do not have to be members of the church; the only requirement is to have an HIV diagnosis.
And for 27 years, Martinez, 75, has volunteered at the food store and now serves as the interim director.
The food store started in 1985, at the dawn of the AIDS epidemic. It was a time when many churches - and large parts of the American public - shunned, ostracized and cast vitriol at gay men with AIDS.
The members at Christ Chapel, however, opened their arms to these men, even when neighbors protested against the food store. When Christ Chapel opened its doors in 1981, it was Long Beach's first gay friendly church.
"Some people in the neighborhood didn't want us doing the food store," Martinez said. "They didn't want to see people here. They would walk across the street to avoid people waiting in line at the church."
But the church didn't yield to the animosity.
"It was a gift we were given to take care of these men. We were called to take care of our brothers who needed taking care of," said Martinez. "God provided for us to do this. We weren't afraid. The job had to be done. We never turned anyone away."
The food store started when food baskets were distributed to seven members of the church who had AIDS and were too sick to work and couldn't support themselves, Martinez said.
"People got very sick back then. There weren't any meds to keep them going. They couldn't work. They didn't have any money. It was a trying time," she said.
"We thought it would get better, but things got worse. We lost so many people. It was a sad and difficult time. It was horrible."
The church first started a weekly food distribution serving about 125 people a week.
Apart from donations from non-church-goers, the congregation helped stock the food shelves, Martinez said.
"People came with a Bible in one hand and a bag of groceries in the other hand," she said.
The demand from the community was so large that in 1992 the food store received its own 501 C-3 nonprofit status.
About six years ago, the food store became bimonthly, serving about 80 people a week.
Even though the demand has dropped, the food store will continue, said Greg Thompson, head pastor at Christ Chapel.
"As long people are living with HIV and AIDS in our community, we will be here to do the food store," Thompson said.
Martinez joined the church in 1983.
"I was a wild woman. I spent time in the bars and dated a lot," she said.
"I was married twice, but it didn't work out. I never understood why until I started dating a woman."
A friend eventually persuaded her to attend Christ Chapel, which was then located on South Street in North Long Beach in a converted garage at the pastor's home.
Even though the church was small in size, it embraced Martinez with a large, warm heart, she said.
"People were friendly and welcoming," Martinez said. "It felt good. It felt right."
But it took a while before Martinez became a member of the congregation, she said.
"I was an alcoholic," Martinez said. "My Saturday nights conflicted with my Sunday mornings.
"But my relationship with God became more important than my relationship with alcohol."
Thompson said Martinez is "the face of Christ Chapel."
"Our church works primarily with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, who many times feel alienated or isolated from the church because of vitriol things people have said," he said. "But she goes out of her way to make them feel welcome.
"She's the mother everyone wishes they had."