While many food pantry sponsors talk in terms of numbers served and pounds distributed, the food ministry veterans at Lutheran Church of St. John’s in Quincy, Ill., focus more on the intangibles – ensuring that people feel valued even in their time of need and are treated with dignity and care.
“What it comes down to is relationships, built over the course of time, that lead to Gospel opportunities,” said Rev. Steven Hayden, St. John’s senior pastor. Volunteers pray with food pantry guests, share encouragement and invite them to worship, vacation Bible school, Christmas programs – and to join the “Nonperishables,” the music ensemble that began through food pantry ties.
“When people share their life with us, that opens a door to sharing the Gospel with them,” said the pastor. His congregation is opening “Gospel opportunity” doors even wider through a new mobile food pantry made possible through a Lutheran Church Extension Fund Kaleidoscope Fund grant.
Will you come pray with me?
St. John’s began its food ministry in the mid-1990s, with members distributing sacks of groceries from a small room in the church basement. A church expansion included designated space for a food pantry and storage room, followed by the addition of a loading dock to accommodate larger shipments.
Today the church food pantry is the second largest in Quincy, serving as many as 1,500 people a month. Twice weekly, visitors gather in the Family Life Center, greeted by volunteers and are invited to share coffee and pastries. Congregants and visitors mingle while children play.
While the outreach has led to baptisms and new members, it also builds other bonds. It’s not unusual for food pantry guests to identify St. John’s as their home church. “They will call and say they’re in the hospital and ask, ‘Will you come pray with me?’” Hayden said. “Or they’ll need counseling, and say, ‘Can we talk?’”
“Grace overflowing,” inspired by 1 Timothy 1:14 (The grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus), is a motto that guides St. John’s ministry beyond church doors. So, it was no surprise that about five years ago the congregation began talking about another food ministry expansion.
“Our community has a lot of folks who have a hard time making ends meet; a lot of working poor with jobs that don’t pay enough for them to do well,” Hayden said. A number of those people live just beyond the city limits in small, rural areas without a food pantry or with one only open monthly – a challenge for people who work weekdays or can’t afford a trip to Quincy.
The idea of a mobile food pantry stirred excitement at St. John’s but also caused concerns. When Hayden read about the LCEF Kaleidoscope Fund grant opportunities in the organization’s Interest Time magazine, he encouraged church leaders to apply.
In April 2019, St. John’s new mobile food pantry made its debut delivery beyond Quincy, in Bowen. That’s one of four rural communities volunteers will visit three times annually. Quarterly visits also are on tap to three Quincy low-income, public housing locations where residents lack convenient access to food due to transportation, disabilities or aging challenges.
Like the church food pantry, the mobile ministry is staffed by regular volunteers at each location. “We’re asking a church family to adopt each of our seven new locations for one year,” Hayden said. For relationships and Gospel opportunities to grow, he says, familiar faces are a must.
Music by the ‘Nonperishables’
Among those familiar faces is Steve, a volunteer who plays guitar while guests visit and select groceries at the church food pantry. Music, of course, is a magnet and brings people together. Once when a visitor mentioned he plays harmonica, Steve invited him to a future duet.
Several weeks later, the man returned to the food pantry, and Steve greeted him by name. When Steve learned that the man was preparing for the funeral of his son, he offered to pray with the grieving father. The pair played “Amazing Grace,” and the man went home with extra food for the funeral dinner.
Today, Steve leads the Nonperishables, a band of musicians who, for the most part, met at St. John’s food pantry. Beyond that venue, they also play at area soup kitchens and hope to expand to other gigs.
Without LCEF, ‘still be dreaming’
The mobile food pantry also creates new ministry opportunities within the congregation. Since the church pantry operates weekdays, volunteers typically have no daily jobs. The mobile pantry’s Saturday schedule opens a door to employed members and families – a “whole new segment of our congregation,” Hayden says.
Likewise, the mobile ministry means opportunities for St. John’s to build partnerships with civic groups and churches in new areas.
One such partner is the LCMS congregation in Mendon, which has a small membership and limited resources for an ambitious food ministry. “But when we come alongside them, we can make a difference together in developing relationships and Gospel opportunities,” Hayden said.
The pastor also shares St. John’s gratitude for the church’s longtime partnership with LCEF. “They helped us fund our expansion that now houses our food pantry,” Hayden said, referring to St. John’s successful capital stewardship campaign with LCEF.
A few years later, LCEF guided the congregation through another campaign to reduce debt and make available funds for ministries. This included the food pantry ministries, which the congregation now calls “Open Hands,” inspired by Psalm 145:16 (You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing).
More recently, St. John’s turned to Lutheran Church Extension Fund’s Kaleidoscope Fund for seed money to buy a truck with refrigeration and other “Open Hands” needs. “Without that grant, we’d still be in the dreaming stage,” Hayden said.