There is a reason we have Deacons and other boards and committees. Proverbs 24:6 says “…for by wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory.” A good idea can be made better by the input and perspective of others. And what seems to be a good idea at first can be revealed to have some serious flaws when it is discussed and prayed over with others.
Back on June 28th of this year I said something in my Sunday morning message that seemed like a good idea at the time. Actually, it seemed like a great idea. It also was a good illustration for the passage I was preaching on, Luke 8:20-26, where Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. And blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.” We looked at the reality that being poor or hungry isn’t necessarily a guarantee of sainthood. Poor people can be mean old sinners, too, and the hunger Jesus was talking about was a spiritual hunger for righteousness. Nevertheless, people are poor, and hunger is an ongoing problem, even here in America. It’s hard to talk to people about Jesus when their stomachs are empty.
Not long before that Sunday morning I had taken part in an online Zoom meeting about how to reach out to people during the COVID-19 crisis. One of the ideas put forth was to have a drive-by food giveaway. You have people pull into your church parking lot, pop their trunks, or roll down their car windows, and then give them a bag of groceries. I thought, “What a simple, great idea!”
Great idea, yes. Simple, no.
That Sunday morning in June I said something I have promised never to say again. I said, “You know, I haven’t run this past the Deacons, or any board or committee, and I’m just thinking out loud here…”. I’ve asked our Chairman of Deacons, if I ever start to say anything like that again, to stand up and make frantic motions for me to stop. I finished by saying, “…but what if we could put together 100 bags of groceries, and announce to people that the first 100 cars to pull in our church parking lot some Saturday morning could pop their trunk and get a free bag of groceries?”
I had no idea how complicated this was going to be. As Margaret Jones once said in a Board of Christian Education meeting, “Boy, nothing is ever simple, is it?” And she was right. I began investigating this idea and asking questions about how we could do this, and how we could get the most “bang for our buck”, i.e., get the most groceries for the least money. And every time I asked a question, the thing got more complicated and confusing. Let me tell you about it.
I first talked to Pastor Scott Kallem of New Life Baptist Church in Greencastle, Indiana. Their church has a food pantry, and they open up their church every week for families in the community to come in and get food. They give families vouchers to use as cash, and people can walk through their pantry room and pick out the items they want.
Years ago, our church had a food pantry. It was discontinued before I came here in 1997. There were problems with some of the people who came in, who became unruly with our church volunteers. And the people who could volunteer through the week were all on the elderly side. There were other food pantries in the area, and our church began to give money to the one at the old Roosevelt Mission on Vincennes Street. The Mission has since been torn down, but we supported it for many years. After the Mission folded, we switched our financial support to the food pantry at St. Peter’s Catholic Church here in Linton. We have supported them ever since, as part of our Missions budget. More on that in a moment. But the bottom line was, we did not want to set up another food pantry here at the church. We just wanted to give away bags of groceries, maybe two to four times a year.
Pastor Scott told me you could get a whole lot more food if you purchased it from the Gleaners organization in Indianapolis. I was going to call them, but he called them first on our behalf. He told me that it turns out the Gleaners don’t cover the Linton area. But he found out that the Catholic Charities organization in Terre Haute does cover our area. I thanked Scott for the information and called Catholic Charities to see how much it would cost to buy food from them.
The good news was, you could get food for about 18 cents a pound through Catholic Charities. That’s a lot of bang for the buck! The bad news was, you were only allowed to buy from them if you were on their list of approved organizations. And since they bought their food from government suppliers, they could only sell the food to government-approved organizations.
In order to be a government-approved organization and be able to buy food from Catholic Charities, you had to be able to demonstrate to the government that you could store the food in a government-approved room, with adequate heating and air conditioning, and with shelves for the food that were at least six inches off of the floor. The storage room had to be inspected by a government official before you could begin, and your facility would be subject to unannounced drop-in inspections by government officials from time to time, to make sure you weren’t violating government standards. Hmmm…
The lady on the phone from Catholic Charities told me there was already a church in Linton that was approved as a food distributor for Catholic Charities. I almost laughed out loud when she told me it was Linton First Christian Church! So I decided to give my friend Warren Shake a call. Warren is a minister on staff at Linton First Christian, and I knew I could ask him about all this. (I also was very tempted to call him “Father Warren”!)
I got Warren on the phone, and asked him how a Christian church got to be on the approved list for Catholic Charities? He told me it wasn’t actually their church, but rather a group of churches here in in Linton that went together to have an independent food pantry. They call it “Son Ministries”.
I told him, “I didn’t know about this! Where is it?” He described the location to me, and I said, “Wait a minute! That sounds like where the food pantry at St. Peter’s Catholic Church is!” He said, “That’s what they used to call it. But several other churches, including ours, have gone in to help with it, so they changed the name to Son Ministries.” I said, “Warren, we’ve supported that food pantry financially for years. Does that mean our church is already part of Son Ministries?” He said, “Yes and no.”
Nothing is ever simple.
Warren told me that anybody could donate to the food pantry, but to be considered a “member” you had to sign a basic statement of faith. It seems that a few years ago there was a non-Christian group that wanted to join. Not wanting to hurt anybody’s feelings, they nevertheless wanted Son Ministries to be a Christian organization. So they made it plain that while anybody could donate, and even volunteer to help at the food pantry, before you could be considered a “member” you had to affirm their basic statement of Christian beliefs. Totally understandable. Being a “member” entitles the leader of your church or ministry to participate in interviewing people who need help with rent or utility bills. (Our church already has procedures in place for helping people with these kinds of needs. During the colder months we deal with a “steady trickle” of requests like that.)
Warren sent me over to talk to the folks at Son Ministries. The afternoon I went it was a beautiful, sunny day. I parked my truck in their parking lot and approached a lady who had come out of the building. Due to the COVID-19 restrictions, nobody was allowed inside. Volunteers with masks on would come out to talk with people. She told me if I wanted food, I had to get in my truck and get in line. I explained that I just wanted to ask questions about giving food away. She told me to wait a minute, and she would send someone out to talk with me.
After a few minutes, a man I’d met before named Pat Kelly came out to talk with me. Pat is currently the minister at the Linton Church of Christ. His church also supports the pantry, and he volunteers there. As we talked, we saw two or three cars come into the parking lot and receive a bag of food through their car windows or in their trunks…just exactly as I had imagined doing. Pat and I stood by my truck and talked.
He told me that before the coronavirus crisis they would have cars lined up out of the parking lot onto E Street and extending across 4th Street to the other side. But since the coronavirus, they have had only a handful of cars in an afternoon. I asked, “Why?” He said when the government coronavirus stimulus checks started going out, the demand dropped off significantly. He explained that while the food pantry only stocked nutritious food, with a government check people could go buy whatever they wanted—including cigarettes and other non-food items. He told me, “We expect the demand to go back up when the government checks stop.”
I asked him if he thought it would hurt their efforts if our church set up our own food give-away. He told me, “No, I don’t think it would hurt us at all. I think folks would just come to your place as well as coming here.” Then I said, “Since we already financially support the Son Ministries food pantry, and since you’re already doing what we thought we might do, should I just encourage our folks to come over and volunteer to help out here?” He told me, “Under normal circumstances, that would be great. But with the COVID restrictions, we can’t even let anybody in the building. So we can’t use more volunteers right now.”
Pat also told me that because of decreased demand, their shelves were overflowing, and their bank account was up, too. He said, “I can’t show it to you because I can’t let you inside, but we absolutely have no more room for food inside the building. And normally it’s all we can do to maintain $10,000 in our checking account to buy food. Last time I looked we had over $80,000 in the account.” Now all that will change dramatically whenever people stop receiving government stimulus checks. Our church still need to support the food pantry. But for the time being, they don’t need more food, they don’t need more money, and they can’t use more volunteers.
All to say: in a sense, our church is already giving out bags of food to families in our community, and we have been for some time, through our financial support of the Son Ministries food pantry. When the coronavirus pandemic is finally over, the food pantry will no doubt welcome volunteers to help with their food distribution. And they won’t have that much money in the bank.
But this is why, under these current circumstances, we’re not going to try to give out food from our church premises right now. Perhaps when the situation changes, we can revisit this idea. But you can bet that when we do, I will be talking about it and praying about it with the rest of our church leadership before I say anything to the congregation about it.
Open mouth, insert foot. It’s okay, I’ve got another one.
Soli Deo Gloria!