“We are called to reach out and feed the hungry. In this way, we live the love of Christ. It’s a way of connecting with the community.” — Scott Mims, pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Virginia Beach, Va.
Providing food to hungry people is one of the oldest social ministries of the Christian church. With more than 95 percent of ELCA congregations operating some form of hunger ministry, this continues to be a big part of the church’s identity and mission in communities across the country and around the world. And with ministries ranging from food pantries to backpack programs and from pay-as-you-can cafés to community meals, there is a lot of collective wisdom across the church.
So what do ELCA congregations have to share about starting feeding ministries?
1. Authentic ministry starts with dignity.
Through his work both as a volunteer and, currently, as director of the food pantry at Trinity Lutheran Church, Fresno, Calif., Jerry Bailey got to know his neighbors, who often faced hunger and poverty with little support. They included older retirees struggling to make ends meet, people with serious disabilities, veterans and minimum wage laborers.
“I always wanted to do that—help people who don’t have any help,” he said.
Providing food is critical, but Bailey sees Trinity’s mission as going deeper: “Many of these people really don’t get a lot of respect. That’s something important we offer them.”
Scott Mims, pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Virginia Beach, Va., added, “You have to watch your heart. … If you are doing it because you feel superior, don’t do it.”
2. Identify key partners.
When Mims arrived at Good Shepherd 10 years ago, the church’s food pantry was only open once a month. “There was a conscious decision to grow what we were already doing and expand in an area that most people … can see makes a difference,” he said. “Everyone needs to eat.”
The first step in expanding the pantry was reaching out to the local food bank, which provides items at low cost. Through that bank, Good Shepherd connected to Food Lion, a local grocery store that has provided canned and dry goods through food drives, in addition to other donations throughout the year. Now Good Shepherd not only has a pantry, but also a backpack program for hungry children and an annual rotating shelter feeding ministry.
Both Trinity and Good Shepherd are among the nearly 350 programs in the U.S. supported by Domestic Hunger Grants from ELCA World Hunger, which congregations can apply for every other year. The grant helped Trinity purchase two months’ worth of food.
3. Listen for other needs and assets.
Trinity’s pantry has “become a hub for other needs,” Bailey said. In addition to food, volunteers provide clothing, books, assistance with gas and electric bills, and gas cards to clients in need.
People facing hunger also often encounter other challenges, such as finding sustainable housing, affording medical treatment or accessing transportation. Feeding ministries can be the start to congregations accompanying neighbors through these other challenges.
In addition to identifying other needs, feeding ministries can also become a way for clients to share their talents. Often the same people who receive food during distribution return as volunteers and become assets to the ministry.
4. Take care of volunteers.
A successful feeding ministry “takes a lot of cooperation and dedication,” Bailey said. Trinity’s pantry, for example, relies on 25 to 30 volunteers a month to pack food, register clients and provide snacks to people waiting in line, some of whom arrive as early as 5 a.m.
At Trinity, helpers are celebrated with “volunteer of the month” awards. “Let them know they are important,” Bailey said. “Recognition sticks around a long time.”
Learning about hunger and poverty can be an eye-opening—and life-changing—experience for some volunteers. Accompanying volunteers through this transformation can help them as their perspective changes.
5. Remember, we are church.
It’s often easy for a feeding ministry to become separated from a congregation’s worship. But many people find that building strong ties between congregational life and the work of a feeding program can help this ministry stay rooted in faith. Even giving an update on the ministry through a temple talk can help all members feel they are part of this work, Bailey said.
It can also be an important way to share the faith that grounds anti-hunger work. “We are called to reach out and feed the hungry,” Mims said. “In this way, we live the love of Christ. It’s a way of connecting with the community. … They see what you’re doing and who we are. And who knows, maybe they might want to come in.”
Oct. 16 is World Food Day, a day to act to end hunger.
To learn how to get involved, go to elca.org/hunger.