Story and Photos by John W. Coleman
(except for the photo from First UMC Mount Carmel)
It is commonly known that Methodists believe in feeding folks. At church meetings, coffee hours, event receptions and other meet-and-greet gatherings, we become virtual “foodies,” serving snacks, sweets or entire suppers to whosoever will come.
But it’s when we feed our communities—at breakfast buffets, soup kitchens, weekly or monthly dinners and holiday feasts—that serving meals becomes key to our mission.
Many churches across the Eastern PA Conference and beyond will feed countless hungry bodies and souls during Thanksgiving week and again at Christmastide. But some of them endeavor to do it all year long. When one steps beyond their serving tables and into their kitchens, it becomes clear that such labors of love require teamwork among dedicated volunteers and ample helpings of church and community support.
First UMC Lancaster serves waffles, eggs, oatmeal and other savory meals to well over a hundred of its downtown neighbors each weekday morning in its gym through the Anchorage Breakfast Ministry. Its VIP guest list, which grows longer toward the end of the month, includes “low-income, unsheltered and socially excluded populations and all who are hungry.”
After 30 years, the nearby St. James Episcopal Church could no longer host this life-sustaining ministry. So, in August 2016, after much discussion, planning and prayer, First UMC cautiously agreed to take it over, with the help of ecumenical and community partners, including volunteers from a dozen churches. The ministry, which soon exceeded its $100,000 budget, recently became a separate 501(c)(3) nonprofit to draw more non-church support.
“I saw this as a calling from God,” remembers the Rev. Joe DiPaolo, who had just arrived as the church’s new pastor a month earlier. “So, how could we say no?”
Except for occasional drama—including a few fights and drug overdoses in the church parking lot—the folks who come are largely peaceful, helpful and grateful. Several might approach the pastor or staff to ask for prayer or a winter coat or blanket. Meanwhile, social services workers are onsite to address other needs.
Two African American churches on North and South Broad Street in Philadelphia’s inner city are among the many that feed their neighbors also. Tindley Temple UMC began serving nourishing meals in the early 1900s under its eminent founding pastor and namesake, the Rev. Charles A. Tindley. He garnered contributions for that important ministry from various community sources, and the church continues to do so today to support the hot lunches it serves in its fellowship hall on Mondays and Wednesdays.
Robert O’Farrell directs the church’s “Soup Kitchen,” offering homemade soup and so much more to over a hundred people weekly. The ministry also offers them various community health services, organized by Parish Nurse Alicia Parker. Those services include information-sharing, health screenings, flu shots, counseling and examinations by specialists.
In its downstairs fellowship hall, New Vision UMC serves an early Sunday breakfast to dozens of hungry neighbors in need, following a brief 8 AM worship service. Many who gather there are homeless, unemployed or recently out of prison. But they join together with church members in hymn-singing, testimony and prayers, before hearing a short sermon and receiving Communion on first Sundays. Meanwhile, volunteers prepare and serve them a weekly hot breakfast.
Christ Servant Minister Jean Kershaw and former Lay Leader Lee Thomas started the breakfast program 15 years ago with inspiration and ideas they received at the 2002 Conference Academy for Laity. It has since spawned other outreach efforts, including a midweek community dinner and Bible study.
“This ministry has become a wonderful source of new persons coming to Christ,” said Kershaw, in her testimony at the 2017 Academy for Laity. “Some even become new members and ultimately, an integral part of the New Vision family.”
Family is an integral part of most ministries at Cokesbury UMC in Marcus Hook. The church hosts “family-friendly worship,” family movie nights, year-round programs for children and youth, the Angel Food Pantry “for families in need,” and a community dinner on first-Sunday evenings.
For three years, the monthly Sunday Supper has offered town residents and church members a reliable venue to meet, greet and eat together. Donated clothing and other items are also available, along with a little pastoral care for good measure.
The Rev. Sandy Cislo was raised in this church and community, where she now serves as a part-time pastor while also administering grants for the local school system. So, she and her church leaders know the neighbors and their many needs and struggles.
“I’m passionate about this community,” she said, “and our church is a very welcoming place. People are loved here.”
Love seems to fill the room at East Stroudsburg UMC during their weekly Monday dinners. Up to 150 neighbors, including some who live on the streets or in tents under a nearby bridge, gather weekly at tables to talk before, during and after dinner is served. The kitchen bustles with fast-paced activity, as coordinator Ana Price and her intergenerational team of volunteers prepare a sumptuous feast of nutritious foods.
Longtime church volunteers welcome helpful high school and college students who come weekly to also serve their community through this historic church’s nurturing ministry. ”Without them I couldn’t do all this,” said Price, who has been doing all this with her team for eight years,
East Stroudsburg UMC prepares and serves meals also on holidays, when the Salvation Army and other churches may be closed. They will serve 21 meals between Christmas and New Year’s Day, Price said, even while short-staffed, because they are the only source in town.
During the week, she stays busy doing other good works and obtaining donated food and supplies for this ministry. “Ana is a good organizer and has a special presence with people,” said her helpful pastor, the Rev. James Todd. “But we try not to burn her out with all she does.”
Why do these and many other churches work so hard to feed their communities—whether through served meals, emergency food pantries or bags of groceries?
“It is not only important but essential for churches to serve those who are in need. It is a part of who we are as people of faith,” said the Rev. Kay Painter, pastor of First UMC in Mount Carmel, located in the heart of Coal Country. “Jesus calls us to serve others in whatever way we can. We are to practice our faith, to put it into action—not sit idly by as people suffer.”
For those who feel it’s the government’s job to stand in the gap and fight hunger, Painter has an apt response: “The church’s mission is to serve those in need, regardless of what the government provides or does not provide….Welfare sends a check or a money access card,” she adds, “but the church provides face-to-face contact. We offer relationships, not only with each other, but with God.”