By John W. Coleman
Many churches around the Eastern PA Conference committed to feeding their communities are meeting the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic with extra food donations, volunteers and creative solutions, including moving their operations outdoors. But the need is still great in the face of widespread unemployment and financial distress caused by the closing of businesses and churches to ensure “social distancing.”
As part of its Coronavirus Assistance Project (CAP), the conference Connectional Ministries office recently published a directory of 26 UM church-run or church-affiliated food distribution ministry sites serving communities across our region. (The directory is available on the conference website with a link under the Resources tab. If your church is involved in the regular distribution of food to its community—even in a partnership—and is not in the directory please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Included are individual churches and those with community and ecumenical partners, stretching across all four districts. Some names reflect their heartfelt mission: Caring for Friends; Loaves and Fishes; Second Harvest; Blessings of Hope; Feed My Sheep; and Helping Hands Ministry. Several serve only county residents; but most have no such restriction.
They serve perishable and non-perishable foods on various days of the week, providing a variety of mobile options, including drive-through service for food pantries; food carts wheeled to patrons’ cars; take-out meals, and delivery of bagged groceries. Most have had to shift their operations from dining and pick-up of food indoor to outdoor solutions, as masked volunteers try to keep their distance from food recipients.
The collaborative Anchorage Breakfast program, hosted by First UMC Lancaster, continues to feed hungry, downtown neighbors Monday through Friday, even amid the COVID-19 shutdown. But they no longer have people seated around tables in the church’s “celebration center.” Instead, to keep workers and guests safe, bagged breakfasts are distributed outside.
“We are feeding 100-150 people each day, and these are the neediest of our neighbors,” reported volunteer Sue Grimm Mattox. Several major fundraisers were cancelled. “So we are appealing to all our friends to help us keep the program running.” Learn more. Watch a video about this lifesaving ministry.
Blessings of Hope
While Philadelphians are familiar with Philabundance, SHARE and other nonprofit bulk food sources, Mattox cites Blessings of Hope Food Ministry in Leola, as a popular, free food source serving West District churches in Lancaster and Lebanon counties. She describes her own church, Ross Street UMC in Lancaster, as “a small, but mighty inner-city church” that recently spent a day “handing out 100 boxes of food from Blessings of Hope to ‘Feed the Body’ and over 75 bags of books to ‘Feed the Mind.’”
Meanwhile, Long Memorial UMC in Neffsville, Lancaster County, has been organizing free grocery giveaways on Friday evenings for years, thanks to Blessings of Hope. Now it’s a fully drive-by operation that offers about 70 pounds of food per vehicle.
“People are very excited to get the food,” said church member and volunteer Ian Solodky. “We’ve had a lot of emotional people come through that were upset for losing a job. We’ve had nurses come through. Blue and white collar workers, all coming through because they need this food for their family.”
The church, like some others, has been featured in local news media for its generosity. They recently added Tuesday pickups to their schedule. “We had an enormous spike,” Solodky said one evening. “We normally have 20 cars. Today, we’re going to have between 100 and 120 cars. We used to go through 2,000 pounds of food. Tonight, it’s 15,000.”
Ridley Park UMC provides its neighbors with free food every other Tuesday and Friday. “We’re getting donations heavily now,” said Jerry Funk, a retired chef who has helped his wife Debbie run the food pantry for the past four years. “It breaks my heart to see how much need people have now. If they’re in trouble and need more, we try to help them.”
Salem UMC in Allentown distributes free food from its pantry to Lehigh County residents on first and third Saturdays—a vital ministry that has served area residents for over 14 years. They average about 300 to 400 families each month, often serving almost 2000 people a month. Second Harvest contributes most of the food, while nearby Asbury UMC Allentown donates fruits and vegetables, and Salem contributes baby food, meats and other needs.
Their longtime, dedicated volunteers come from Salem, Asbury and other churches and from the community. But more volunteers are always needed. And the church partnership, which has received Urban Alliance funds from the conference’s Urban Commission, direly needs a van to bolster its collection and transportation of food donations and deliveries.
Conference, church donations help feed families
Low-income, immigrant Latino families who worship at St. Paul’s UMC in Warrington are among many who live in one of the region’s food deserts, which describes a neighborhood without proximity to supermarkets and other sources of nutritious, affordable food. The Rev. Luky Cotto, who serves those families through Casa del Pueblo, an outreach ministry of Lehman Memorial UMC in nearby Hatboro, welcomed donations from Lehman, Morrisville and Newtown UMCs, as well as UM Women of the East District, and other donors.
Cotto, who uses donations to provide much-needed food and diapers, has seen coronavirus infections and at least one death strike Latino residents in Warrington. Many live in apartments with multiple families. She tries to convince those who show symptoms to get tested and treated. But some who are undocumented are fearful or lack health insurance and doctors’ referrals. “This community has been completely forgotten,” she said.
As the conference’s Latino Ministries coordinator, she inspired the Rev. Anita Powell, Connectional Ministries Director, to create the CAP to address food insecurity among racial-ethnic residents in urban communities through local churches. Powell sought funds from the conference—including a grant from the Northeastern Jurisdiction Multi-Ethnic Center for Ministry—and from the Cabinet.
Those funds allowed her in April to offer pastors of urban racial-ethnic and multi-ethnic congregations $100 gift cards—three for each–to provide to church families struggling to buy food in under-resourced communities. Participating pastors submitted names, received and distributed the gift cards to grateful recipients and sent back proof of their delivery.
“I did not apply at first because we have a small pantry to care the needs of those inside and outside the church,” said the Rev. Olivet Brown, Pastor, UM Church of the Good Shepherd, Philadelphia. “However, one of our members who literally feeds others from her own cupboard had a neighbor who knocked on her door asking for some rice. She shared with the neighbor what she had. Receiving the CAP gift card enabled that member to purchase groceries for her household that she shared with her neighbors. Our other members were also grateful for the unexpected blessing.”