Martin Medellin leads a food distribution at the parking lot of Southside Baptist Church on a recent Thursday, July 30, 2020.
Martin Medellin leads a food distribution at the parking lot of Southside Baptist Church on July 30. Photo by Benjamin Gonzalez | Heron

Martin Medellin waved his arms emphatically as he directed a few hundred cars to their proper place to stop in the parking lot of Southside Baptist Church on a recent Thursday.

Medellin, wearing a bright orange T-shirt and an excited smile, watched as around 30 volunteers weaved between cars with goods in hand, and loaded the backseats with two cardboard boxes of food, two gallons of milk, and a pack of bottled water.

A local minister, Medellin has been organizing food distributions for seven years. In talking about the importance of the distribution, he spoke with a sermon's cadence, pausing with each point as he waited for it to sink in.

“What we take for granted can be so major for somebody,” Medellin said. “Your neighbor could be starving, but you won’t know if you don’t talk to them.”

The event, which distributed boxes to over 377 families, was only one part of a widespread effort by Medellin since 2013 to get food to families in small towns surrounding southern San Antonio. After working with the San Antonio Food Bank for several years to distribute food locally, Medellin quickly built a network of churches and non-profit food distributors that reaches as far as Corpus Christi. Medellin’s church, Refuge Port Ministry, organizes such distributions almost every week at Southside Baptist Church along Loop 1604. It regularly sends shipments of food boxes to nearby churches in need. Because the Covid-19 pandemic has made food harder to access, he says, the need for distribution to smaller towns is greater than ever.

“The way I look at it is like this,” Medellin explained. “If you’re a pastor on the South Side with a small church, I can’t reach those 50 members you’ve got by myself. But if I bless you [with food boxes] we could reach them together. With a lot of the smaller churches I’ll just give them a pallet of about 64 boxes, and boom, they give it out.”

Volunteers distribute food and milk at the parking lot of Southside Baptist Church on a recent Thursday, July 30, 2020.
Cars fill the parking lot of Southside Baptist Church on July 30 for a recent food distribution. Photo by Benjamin Gonzalez | Heron

Medellin typically receives one large truckload of “Farmers to Families” food boxes per week from DiMare Fresh, a Houston supplier which provides the boxes via a $24 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant. According to Medellin, he also receives donations of 1,500 gallons of milk from Borden Dairy Products, and various food products from the Children’s Hunger Fund. He estimates these donations supply food to 28 different churches or non-profits in the area, which then distribute the boxes among their congregations or service areas. He has also organized a homebound program for elderly neighbors who can’t bring themselves to distributions.

“When the Lord called me out to these little towns, and I got to hear their stories one on one, the people feel like, ‘Man, we’re always overlooked,’” Medellin said. “It’s like, ‘The big cities get all the blessings, and we get the leftovers.’ So I do my best to try and get to places like Elmendorf, or Sandy Oaks.”

When Medellin talks about the expansive network of churches and non-profits that he has connected to for food distribution, he displays an encyclopedic knowledge of personal details and names of the people he works with. He often names the pastors of individual churches across South Texas, referencing specific conversations and anecdotes related to them. During the recent Southside Baptist Church distribution, he often pointed out drivers he had seen before and talked about their individual financial or medical struggles during the pandemic.

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When asked how he was able to build the his network, Medellin gives full credit to “the grace of God.” Though he hadn’t grown up in a religious environment, he developed a newfound commitment to religious service in 2000 after he was hospitalizaed for a near-ruptured pancreas.

“Twelve hours after [being taken to the hospital], the doctors were telling my wife I was going to die that night,” he said. “You tend to try and get right with God when they tell you you’re going to die.”

Despite the odds, Medellin woke up the next morning and was released from the hospital two weeks later.

“I was in a wheelchair for nine months, and they told me I wouldn’t walk again,” Medellin said. “But I’m walking today.”

After the incident, Medellin gradually became involved in ministry over the next decade through men’s bible studies at a local church. He began leading the studies, eventually gaining more members and slowly building connections. When Medellin noticed a need for a women’s bible study, his wife Maria began leading one as well. Then, when the Medellins noticed that some parents didn’t have babysitters to watch their kids during the studies, they decided to start a children’s church out of their own home. Finally, Medellin spoke with his pastor and became ordained, officially starting Refuge Port Ministries in 2013.

When reflecting on the breadth of his ministry Medellin can’t seem to believe it himself. “I never in my life thought I would be talking with representatives, or mayors, or chiefs of police,” Medellin said. “My prayer has always been to be blessed so that I can bless others.”

Looking out on the crowd of volunteers coming together to distribute food at Southside Baptist Church, Medellin still seemed in awe at the amount of people coming together to serve the community.

“Just to see everyone come together like this is such a blessing,” Medellin said. “Such a blessing.”

Volunteers distribute food and milk at the parking lot of Southside Baptist Church on July 30. Photo by Benjamin Gonzalez | Heron

Benjamin Gonzalez was recently a reporting intern at the Heron. He graduated from Trinity University with a bachelor of arts degree in anthropology, and can be reached at @BennyCruzG on Twitter.

Headline:

Blurb:

Martin Medellin was animated as he stood amidst the hundreds of cars snaking through the parking lot of Southside Baptist Church on a recent Thursday. Waving his arms emphatically, the pastor directed the next car to the proper place to stop while volunteers opened the backseat door and loaded it with two cardboard boxes full of food, two gallons of milk, and a pack of bottled water. As each car was loaded up, officers from the Bexar County Constable’s office directed traffic out through the parking lot exit back onto the street. Medellin, wearing a bright orange t-shirt and an excited smile, watched as around 30 volunteers weaved between cars carrying the variety of goods and loading the cars. In talking about the importance of the distribution, he spoke with the cadence of a sermon, pausing with each point as he waited for it to sink in.
HE’S DOING THIS ON HIS OWN

“What we take for granted can be so major for somebody,” Medellin said. “Your neighbor could be starving, but you won’t know if you don’t talk to them.”

The event, which distributed boxes to over 377 families, was only one part of a widespread effort by Medellin since 2013 to get food to families in small towns surrounding southern San Antonio. After working with the San Antonio Food Bank for several years to distribute food locally, Medellin quickly built a network of churches and non-profit food distributors that reaches as far as Corpus Christi. Medellin’s church, Refuge Port Ministry, organizes such distributions almost every week at Southside Baptist Church and regularly sends shipments of food boxes to other nearby churches in need. Because the COVID-19 pandemic has made food harder to access, he says, the need for food distribution to smaller towns is greater than ever.
24510 Open Range Road
Outside the San Antonio city limits

“The way I look at it is like this,” Medellin explained. “If you’re a pastor on the South side with a small church, I can’t reach those 50 members you’ve got by myself. But if I bless you [with food boxes] we could reach them together. With a lot of the smaller churches I’ll just give them a pallet of about 64 boxes, and boom, they give it out.”

Medellin typically receives one large truckload of “Farmers to Families” food boxes per week from DiMare Fresh, a Houston supplier which provides the boxes via a $24 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant. According to Medellin, he also receives donations of 1500 gallons of milk from Borden Dairy Products, and various food products from the Children’s Hunger Fund. He estimates that these donations supply food to 28 different churches or non-profits in the area, which then distribute the boxes among their congregations or service areas. He has also organized a homebound program for elderly neighbors who can’t bring themselves to distributions.

“When the Lord called me out to these little towns, and I got to hear their stories one-on-one, the people feel like, ‘man, we’re always overlooked,’” Medellin said. “It’s like, ‘the big cities get all the blessings, and we get the leftovers.’ So I do my best to try and get to places like Elmendorf, or Sandy Oaks.”

When Medellin talks about the expansive network of churches and non-profits that he has connected to for food distribution, he displays an encyclopedic knowledge of personal details and names of the people he works with. He often names the pastors of individual churches across South Texas, referencing specific conversations and anecdotes related to them. During the Southside Baptist Church distribution, he often pointed out drivers he had seen before and talked about their individual financial or medical struggles during the pandemic.

When asked about how he was able to build the amount of connections he has, Medellin gives full credit to “the grace of God.” Though he hadn’t grown up in a religious environment, he developed a newfound commitment to religious service in 2000 after a hospitalization for a near-ruptured pancreas.

“Twelve hours after [being taken to the hospital], the doctors were telling my wife I was going to die that night,” said Medellin. “You tend to try and get right with God when they tell you you’re going to die.”

Despite the odds, Medellin woke up the next morning and was released from the hospital two weeks later.

“I was in a wheelchair for nine months, and they told me I wouldn’t walk again,” Medellin said. “But I’m walking today.”

After the incident, Medellin gradually became involved in ministry over the next decade through men’s bible studies at a local church. He began leading the studies, eventually gaining more members and slowly building connections. When Medellin noticed a need for a women’s bible study, his wife Maria began leading one as well. Then, when the Medellins noticed that some parents didn’t have babysitters to watch their kids during the studies, they decided to start a children’s church out of their own home. Finally, Medellin spoke with his pastor and became ordained, officially starting Refuge Port Ministries in 2013.

When reflecting on the breadth of his ministry Medellin can’t seem to believe it himself. “I never in my life thought I would be talking with representatives, or mayors, or chiefs of police,” Medellin said. “My prayer has always been to be blessed so that I can bless others.”

Looking out on the crowd of volunteers coming together to distribute food at Southside Baptist Church, Medellin still seemed in awe at the amount of people coming together to serve the community.

“Just to see everyone come together like this is such a blessing,” Medellin said. “Such a blessing.”

The Chamoy City Limits food truck is scene on the 100 block of Losoya Street on Friday , July 17, 2020.
The Chamoy City Limits food truck on the 100 block of Losoya Street. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

This month, Centro San Antonio partnered with Ana Fernandez, owner of Chamoy City Limits, to provide free paletas, facemasks and hand sanitizer to passersby at multiple downtown locations via a mobile food truck. The partnership, which began July 3 and has continued weekly every Friday since, seeks to raise public awareness about protections against Covid-19 in a novel and eye-catching way.

"It's kind of a more fun way to get your protective equipment, because everybody can use a mask, and most people could use a new mask," said Fernandez, who owns and operates the Chamoy City Limits brick-and-mortar location on West Hildebrand Avenue in addition to the food truck.

The truck displays artwork and charts communicating health information about Covid-19, and visits locations around the downtown Friday afternoons typically stopping outside the Emily Morgan DoubleTree hotel and the Hyatt Regency San Antonio Riverwalk. From the truck, paletas and protective equipment are distributed using a six-foot pole with a small conical basket on the end in order to maintain physical distancing.

Fernandez seeks to reach San Antonio locals and tourists alike. Finding locals near the bus stops and tourists near the Alamo and River Walk areas, she utilizes the truck’s ice cream music to catch the attention of anyone nearby.

“People will wave us down and we’ll pull over, or we’ll see people and stop to give them masks if we see them without masks,” Fernandez said.

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Centro San Antonio, an organization dedicated to downtown enhancement and promotion, first reached out to Chamoy City Limits last month in an effort to promote public health while supporting local businesses and artists.

“We’d always wanted to experiment with mobile experiences… and we’re big fans of (Fernandez), so we reached out to her with this crazy idea,” said Matt Sirgo, director of storytelling at Centro San Antonio. “It’s just one small way to connect with people and get the message across to stay safe, follow the recommended CDC guidelines, and we’ll get through this together.”

Local artist Isabel Ann Castro created all the informational art decorating the truck. Some pieces communicate a more educational approach, such as info on how to monitor symptoms of Covid-19. Others feature artwork accompanied by fun, San Antonio-specific phrases, such as “Stay Home And Resta, Or There Will Be No Fiesta.” Castro’s project was originally intended to be separate, but was combined with Chamoy City Limits’ truck after Centro realized how the goals of both initiatives aligned.

“Everything we do, we wanted to support local businesses and entrepreneurs, and also recognize that unfortunately during times like these, the first things to get cut are the artists and arts programs," Sirgo said.

Marcy McChesney delivers a coconut paleta from the Chamoy City Limits food truck on Friday, July 17, 2020.
Marcy McChesney delivers a coconut paleta from the Chamoy City Limits food truck on Friday, July 17. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

The recent combined partnership with Fernandez and Castro comes in the midst of Centro’s rollout of their “Art Everywhere” initiative, which plans to add 10 murals to Houston Street this year. In mid-June, local artist Anthony Dean-Harris completed his mural, “Instructions For Use For Adapting To Our State of Constant Change” at the Maverick Building facing South Presa Street as part of the program.

Fernandez has two more distributions scheduled this month for this Friday and next Friday, from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., with potential plans to continue in August. “Our hope is to make people feel good, and walk away with a big smile,” Fernandez said. “It’s cool when you’re walking down the street and someone hands you free ice cream.”

The location of Chamoy City Limits’ truck during distribution can be found on their Facebook and Instagram pages.

Gabriel Lopez, who works at The Buckhorn Saloon & Museum, grabs a free paleta on Friday, July 17, 2020.
Gabriel Lopez, who works at The Buckhorn Saloon & Museum, grabs a free paleta on Friday. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

Benjamin Gonzalez is a reporting intern at the Heron. He graduated from Trinity University with a bachelor of arts degree in anthropology, and can be reached at bencruzgonzalez@saheron.com, @BennyCruzG on Twitter.

Protestors begin their walk to the Bexar County Courthouse, Thursday, June 4 in front of the Public Safety Headquarters at 315 S Santa Rosa. Photo by V. Finster | Heron

On the sixth consecutive day of gatherings against police brutality in downtown San Antonio, about 500 protestors looked for city officials to match verbal support with action.

Last night, the peaceful protest began at 3:30 p.m. at public safety headquarters on South Santa Rosa Street and soon moved to the Bexar County Courthouse where demonstrators gathered at the front steps. The protests were sparked by the death of George Floyd, who was killed by Derek Chauvin, the now-fired Minneapolis cop, last week. Much of the protest revolved around changes organizers wanted to see reflected in local government.

Pharaoh Clark, 32, a local activist and representative of Uniting America Through Wisdom, announced a list of 10 demands for specific changes from the city. These included a citizen review board for all complaints against San Antonio Police Department officers, a minimum of $250,000 paid to the family of any unarmed civilian unlawfully killed by police, and a monthly forum for the public to interact with the police department.

Speaking to protestors in front of the courthouse, Mayor Ron Nirenberg highlighted the need for action beyond simply expressing support.

“Y'all are tired of the conversations that we continue to have year after year where the end result is something like this,” Nirenberg said. “We hear you, we know there needs to be a change, and we’re going to set up a committee to help us through that. But I’m here to tell you that I don’t want any more committees.”

Nirenberg turned to Clark and committed to “working every single day” with him until “everyone can go home without feeling like they have to fight for… the freedom to feel safe in their own community.”

Earlier in the day, a Black Lives Matter protest erupted inside City Council chambers, before the council was set to vote on a mid-year budget adjustment due to Covid-19. They called for defunding SAPD, which, along with the fire department and park police, accounts for $820.3 million—or 64%—of the city's $1.27 billion general fund. Nirenberg, several times, threatened to suspend the meeting to restore order, but ultimately didn’t. The meeting resumed after he promised Clark he’d meet with him in his office after the meeting and start a meaningful dialogue.

At the end of his speech to the protestors, Nirenberg volunteered to take responsibility for future changes.

“There will be people... who will wear a uniform and make mistakes, but let’s forgive that, and hold me accountable for it,” Nirenberg said. “Because I’m the mayor of this goddamn city, and we’re going to make change together, OK?”

The crowd generally responded favorably to Nirenberg’s speech, applauding multiple times throughout. But many protestors made it clear that they want to see it result in real action.

“I want to thank (the mayor) for coming... but he is right, we are looking for accountability,” one of the organizers said to the crowd. “We are looking for him to have action with his words. You can say all the words you want, but that doesn’t mean anything if you don’t back it up.”

Tony Mandujano, an army veteran and attendee of the protest, is hoping for improvements in the ways police are prepared for their job. He emphasized the importance of “making sure they go through multicultural training to know every facet of the communities where they get their job.”

The protest was organized by Young Ambitious Activists, a new local organization that plans to keep holding frequent protests, according to organizers. They emphasized the importance of younger people taking action.

"Me being as young as I am, I haven’t really had a major opportunity to protest," said Jesse, an 18-year-old protestor who preferred to give only his first name. "After this horrible situation, this is the perfect opportunity to get out of the house and go protest...I see now why people fight so hard and are coming (to the protests) daily. It’s such an invigorating movement.”

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Benjamin Gonzalez is a reporting intern at the Heron. He graduated from Trinity University with a bachelor of arts degree in anthropology, and can be reached at bencruzgonzalez@saheron.com, @BennyCruzG on Twitter.

Market Plaza closed Memorial Day 2020
The Market Plaza at Market Square is closed during Memorial Day, May 25. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

At Thursday’s City Council meeting, city officials proposed a four-month rent abatement plan for retail and restaurant tenants who lease space at La Villita and Market Square, as well as the International Center office building.

The proposed four-month rent abatement for the more than 100 small businesses at La Villita and Market Square would cover the entirety of tenants’ rent costs from April through July, Assistant City Manager Lori Houston said. City officials estimate the city will lose $1.9 million from revenue at La Villita and Market Square, as well as Alamodome concessionaires and the San Antonio Missions' lease of Wolff Municipal Stadium, should the season be canceled. Overall, the city expects nearly $200 million in lost revenues—from venue leases, sales tax, hotel occupancy tax, among other sources—because of closures related to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The rent abatement is part of a larger $191 million mid-year budget adjustment in Covid-19 relief by the city. The larger proposal includes grants for small businesses, roughly $50 million toward housing security, and workforce development initiatives. While the proposal was open for discussion Thursday, the City Council is expected to vote on the plan June 4.

Tenants were originally told rent for the months of April and May, the months their stores were closed due to Covid-19, was "temporarily suspended." But the ambiguous language left them unsure whether they would need to pay back the rent.

Deborah Sibley, owner of Capistrano Soap Company at La Villita, said she's satisfied with the proposed rent abatement plan for her area.

"In March, (the La Villita Tenants Association) sent an email to the City Council members and city manager’s office asking for an abatement from April through July," Sibley said. "I’m very pleased that they’ve taken our suggestion and brought it to council, and I’m very hopeful that the council will vote to pass that.”

In addition, the city has frozen the annual increase in rent and maintenance fees for La Villita tenants for 12 months.

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The city-owned shopping districts of La Villita and Market Square have been closed since March 24 and the city plans to reopen them next week. Market Square will reopen June 3, and La Villita on June 4, according to city officials.

Business owners are preparing for the reopening with measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19. This includes facemask policies, social distancing requirements, and consistent decontamination of surfaces.

Related
Tenants of La Villita, Market Square may still owe rent for shuttered months
Shop owners at Market Square want upgrades, but not at their expense

Benjamin Gonzalez is a reporting intern at the Heron. He graduated from Trinity University with a bachelor of arts degree in anthropology, and can be reached at bencruzgonzalez@saheron.com, @BennyCruzG on Twitter.

La Villita closed Memorial Day 2020
La Villita is closed on Memorial Day because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

As small business owners at historic La Villita and Market Square prepare to reopen in early June, some are looking to the city for financial relief.

They've been told that rent for April and May, when the two historic districts have closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, has been suspended. Many, however, are confused and don't know whether they will be required to pay rent for those months.

"We all, as tenants, kind of thought that since the city chose to close their properties until June ... the rent wouldn’t pick up again until (June) 1 as well," said Barry Clark, who co-owns La Villita Café and the Scentchips shop. "But we haven’t heard ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ I think (the city’s) biggest concern has been figuring out how to open safely. They want to make sure they’re demonstrating best practices."

The La Villita Tenants Association has requested rent abatement through July.

John Jacks, director of the Center City Development and Operations Department (CCDO), declined to be interviewed for this report.

When asked via email if the rent payments are deferred (to be paid back later) or cancelled entirely, Jacks said, "Recognizing the immense challenges resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, (CCDO) worked with Market Square and La Villita tenants to temporarily suspend rent payments for April and May. Additional rent relief options are also under consideration as part of a larger plan to assist small businesses affected by Covid-19."

As a form of crisis relief, his department has proposed that the annual base rent increase of 2% and common area maintenance fee increase of 2.5%, at La Villita, at least, be put on hold for the next 12 months.

Market Plaza closed Memorial Day 2020
The Market Plaza at Market Square is closed during Memorial Day. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

'Soft opening'

The downtown shopping districts are city-owned properties that were temporarily closed March 24. Combined, they lease to more than 100 tenants. Some restaurants are open for take-out and limited dine-in service, such as Guadalajara Grill at La Villita and Mi Tierra at Market Square. Some shops, such as Texas Hats at Market Square, are open because they operate in privately-owned buildings. But the vast majority of vendors at both locations have had their doors closed to customers for weeks.

Market Square will reopen June 3, and La Villita on June 4, city officials confirmed. At La Villita, the shops will be open limited hours, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Friday through Monday, tenants said.

"Once La Villita and Market Square reopen to the public, individual tenants may choose to operate their shops as they feel safe to do so," Kelly Saunders, a spokeswoman for the Center City Development and Operations Department (CCDO), said in an email.

Tenants such as Deborah Sibley, owner Capistrano Soap Company at La Villita, say they won't be fully staffed until they see foot traffic return to the area. They are preparing for a vastly different commercial landscape than the one they're used to. So are small business owners are Market Square.

“We rely a lot on tourism and conventions, and that business is not where it used to be,” said Yvette Ramirez, president of the San Antonio Farmers Market Plaza Association. “We were counting on Fiesta week and the Tejano Music Awards Fan Fair to really push up business, but unfortunately we were not able to have those two festivals."

According to a recent report by the San Antonio Express-News, 23 citywide conventions and 28 smaller programs have been cancelled. The city had estimated $60.9 million in revenue from hotel occupancy from March to September, but now expects $20.3 million during the same timeframe, according to the Express-News.

It is unclear how much revenue the city has lost from La Villita and Market Square, and how many retail locations the city owns, because city officials declined to provide those figures.

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A safe return

Returning to their stores also poses a risk for certain tenants, especially those who are more at risk of infection.

“There’s a lot of fear, because a lot of the tenants are older and considered more high-risk,” Clark said. “So now they have to consider what’s going on with the virus, and whether they want to put themselves in that precarious situation.”

Beyond the financial challenges, tenants are also preparing for new in-store policies to keep customers safe during the pandemic. These measures include facemask requirements, social distancing policies, and consistent decontamination of surfaces and products.

“We’ll be doing everything we can to do everything mandated of us,” Ramirez said. “We’re training business owners to be wiping things down to disinfect them, especially when customers are picking up items to look at them.”

The impact of the closures has forced business owners into a new normal. With such sudden shifts, many tenants are looking for ways to adapt and update their businesses to new formats, potentially changing the landscape of downtown commerce in San Antonio.

“I think the tourism business is forever changed,” Ramirez said. “This has opened everybody’s eyes to the fact that everything can change at a moment’s notice. The majority of tenants at Market Square have been there for over 20 years, and so we’ve done it the ‘mom-and-pop’ store way and realized that may need to change.”

Related
Shop owners at Market Square want upgrades, but not at their expense

Benjamin Gonzalez is a reporting intern at the Heron this summer. He is graduating from Trinity University with a bachelor of arts degree in anthropology, and can be reached at
bencruzgonzalez@saheron.com | @BennyCruzG on Twitter

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