“Thirty-six, 37, 38, 39 and 40!” boomed Dick Rasner down the long basement hallway in the back of the Cathedral Church of St. Luke on State Street in Portland.

One by one, yellow tickets in hand, the people rose from their folding chairs and came forward: an impeccably dressed woman from Sudan, a middle-age man in a Red Sox T-shirt, a young woman with two little girls in tow …

“Thank you, sir, how are you today?” Rasner said with a smile as he took a ticket. “You’re all set, go right on in!”

“Thank you very much. Appreciate it,” the man replied as he headed for a meeting room-turned-lifeline at the end of the hallway.

Welcome to St. Elizabeth’s Essentials Pantry, where for the past 10 years all kinds of people in all kinds of need have gathered each Tuesday morning for a couple of rolls of toilet paper, a zip-lock bag of laundry detergent, a bar of soap and, if it’s a good week, maybe a box of disposable diapers for the little ones.

It’s all free.

It all comes with no questions asked.

And it’s all made possible, thank God, by people who still believe that poverty is better greeted with compassion than with condemnation.

“If you’re willing to wait in line for an hour for two rolls of toilet paper, I’m not going to question you,” said Rasner, a soon-to-be Episcopal deacon who directs the pantry. “I mean, truly.”

We live in an era when the war on poverty has, for far too many, morphed into a war on the poor.

We have a governor who scores political points with his adoring tea party base by promising to triple Maine’s welfare fraud investigators from 11 to 32 — all because Gov. Paul LePage’s gut tells him there’s a whole lot of cheating going on down there at the bottom of the state’s still-flagging economy.

We have conservatives the country over complaining that too many low-income Americans don’t pay any income tax, without pausing to consider the greed-driven financial crisis of 2008 that swelled the ranks of the nouveau poor in the first place.

And then we have those who, week after week, month after month, show up in places like the basement of St. Luke’s and quietly do the right thing.

“76, 77, 78, 79 and 80!” bellowed Rasner as yet another wave passed into the pantry.

It started 10 years ago this summer, a small-scale effort to provide Greater Portland’s poor with the “essentials” that can’t be bought with food stamps and can’t be found at the food pantries. Volunteers from eight Episcopal churches sort out the goods and staff the tables from 9:30 to 11 a.m. each Tuesday, often assisted by students from schools in Falmouth and Portland.

“What we’ve seen is the numbers increase dramatically in the past few years,” said Holly MacEwan of Falmouth, who has volunteered (along with her three children) for eight of the pantry’s 10 years.

She’s not exaggerating: Where once there were 100 or so people lined up at 9:30 a.m. with tickets in hand, the average weekly tally now triples that.

“Some people start showing up as early as 4 a.m.,” Rasner said. “We have a cleaning woman here at that time and she starts giving out the tickets — the lower the number, the better the selection.”

Some who visited the pantry this week had no problem attaching their names to their stories.

Matthew Branch, Number 97 on this day, waited his turn with his 16-month daughter, Lillianna. Branch said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and regularly has trouble making ends meet on his $684 monthly disability check.

“I tell you, man, there have been times I had no diapers, no wipes — and they provide those when they have them,” he said. “It’s just been a blessing. This place is really a blessing.”

Stephanie Hoffman, 23, worked until recently at Wendy’s in Biddeford, where she lived with her sister. But then her sister moved up north, forcing Hoffman to give up her job and move, along with her daughters Adriana, 2, and Natalie, 1, into an aunt’s house in Portland.

“I’m looking (for work),” Hoffman said. In the meantime, she said, the pantry “makes a huge difference.”

Does she worry about what’s in store for her and her little girls?

“Not really,” Hoffman said with a touch of resignation beyond her years. “We just live day by day. Either way, we’ll figure it out.”

Others aren’t so sure.

One woman, declining to give her name, said this was her first visit to the pantry. She found it through “211 Maine,” the state’s health and social services hotline, and now here she was, methodically sorting through the pile of children’s clothing.

Have things changed for her recently?

“Yes,” she replied softly with a quick nod. “The past couple of months.”

Unemployment?

“Yes,” she said. Then, holding up a tiny pair of blue jeans, she said, “That’s all I’d like to say … I really need to get back to this.”

“121, 122, 123, 124 and 125!” called Rasner.

To those who would look at this weekly procession and say these people should buck up and stop depending on handouts, Rasner counters that life on society’s edge is far from that simple.

“The vast majority of people who come through here, when we talk with them individually, are in situations that for the most part are no fault of their own,” he said. “They’ve lost their job, then they can’t pay the rent, then they get a voucher to live somewhere and then all of a sudden there are bedbugs there and they have to be out the next day.”

The pantry (named after St. Elizabeth of Hungary, who spent her life tending to the poor and sick) provides those people more than just a bag full of essentials. Equally important, Rasner said, is a much-needed sense of community that binds all who come through the door.

“I only come here when I need to,” said Gerry Huff of Portland, accompanied by his 4-year-old son, Gerald. “No toilet paper for me and the little man.”

A woman nearby laughed out loud. “Everybody needs that!” she said as smiling faces nodded up and down the line.

Rasner, about to call another round of ticket numbers, took a moment to bask in the banter.

“If I weren’t working here and read what I read about what’s going on in Augusta, I’d be so depressed I could hardly stand it,” he said.

The. Rev. Regina Knox, who has ministered on the streets of Portland since her ordination to the Episcopal priesthood in June, said the problem with much of the political rhetoric these days is the popular notion that poverty is a temporary condition and hence “you should only need help for awhile.”

“But when you don’t have enough, whether you’re working or you’ve lost your job and you’re short $25, $30 or $40 every week, well, every week you’re going to be short, every week you’re going to need something,” Knox said. “So it’s kind of perpetual.”

That’s not, to be sure, what all those “reformers” out there want to hear.

But before you dismiss this weekly gathering as yet another magnet for freeloaders, consider joining Knox, Rasner and all these other good folks some Tuesday morning. You might see, up close and personal, what a difference a free roll of toilet paper can make.

“I get much more than I give,” Knox noted with a broad smile. “It’s where I find God, in all of these faces.”

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]