There were times in Jane Harrington’s life when she found herself short on cash. “Sometimes I would eat mayonnaise sandwiches and thought it was a treat if there was lettuce and tomato to go with it,” she said.
Harrington now volunteers at the Bread for All (BFA) Food Pantry, where she empathizes with those she serves. “I’ve been there; I’ve done that; and I understand completely,” she said. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of. That’s what I want folks to feel when they come through the doors.”
The BFA Food Pantry, which opened in 2013, is operated by Austin City Lutherans (ACL), a nonprofit consisting of the leaders and members of the 14 ELCA congregations in Austin, Texas. Formed in 2011, ACL aims to bring these communities together to share their ministry gifts to do “more, better, together,” as its tagline says.
ACL’s formation was local and grassroots, said Tim Anderson, a pastor and the nonprofit’s community development director. He said the Southwestern Texas Synod lost numerous congregations after the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly decision to ordain people in same-gender relationships. “We knew that our synod leadership—dealing with the fallout of a number of rural congregations leaving—was in no position to help us with the formation of this ministry,” he added. “We assumed responsibility with a 100 percent positive attitude.”
BFA Food Pantry was an early mission of ACL as a response to seeing a need on Austin’s east side, which has a 30 percent poverty rate, Anderson said. The pantry was originally hosted in an ELCA congregation that has since closed, along with another ELCA church that was on the east side.
While the 14 congregations are on Austin’s west side, ACL is committed to being active in ministry throughout the city. To maintain the pantry’s mission, ACL partnered with Faith Presbyterian Church, which now serves as the host site. The pantry is going strong with a volunteer base of 50 people, which includes some who aren’t Lutheran but are committed to the ministry.
“Austin City Lutherans is about listening to the calling of the Spirit and offering the gifts and strengths of our congregations, multiplied in cooperation, to partner with people in blessing the world God loves.”
ACL also plans to open an early childhood development center on Austin’s southeast side in August 2019. The center will use a two-generation approach by taking care of children (birth to age 3) and providing support and education for their parents, Anderson said. The goal is to offer a top-rated early childhood development center and to pay competitive rates for the best teachers.
“Our goal is not necessarily to create an eventually ‘self-sufficient’ operation, but to provide a service ministry in a part of the city where there is no such thing for children and their families,” he said.
Like people, congregations and collectives have spiritual gifts and capabilities, said Brad Highum, pastor of Abiding Love Lutheran Church, a founding member of ACL and president of its board of directors. “In different ways, all our communities had particular strengths in feeding ministries,” he said. “Abiding Love’s food pantry was a model for cooperatively expanding a feeding ministry into the area of greatest need in our city. That was the genesis of BFA.”
A variety of congregations and other organizations provide resources and volunteer support to the core of ACL. Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod members, Unitarians and more work side-by-side, Highum said.
“It’s amazing to see how our denominational distinctives disappear when we unite in mission. Together we are providing supplemental nutrition and other necessities for many more people than we could individually. And together we’re doing better, more effective ministry than we could on our own,” he said. “Austin City Lutherans is about listening to the calling of the Spirit and offering the gifts and strengths of our congregations, multiplied in cooperation, to partner with people in blessing the world God loves.”
St. John-San Juan Lutheran Church joined ACL when it first formed and helps with the BFA Food Pantry. “By working with other churches, we are able to do more than we could alone,” said Ellen Williams, pastor of the congregation. “We give a little time and some treasure and receive the experience of God’s grace through our neighbors.”