In the spring of 2021, as COVID-19 dragged on, our small group at Advent, Charlotte, was finishing an intensive study of Isaiah. Before the last class was finished, verses 58:10-11 rose from the pages as a message:
If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
We felt that the words of the prophet Isaiah pleading for us to care for those in need demanded action. We began a series of conversations designed to discern what we should do. Our Little Free Pantry, which began earlier in the pandemic, was emptied so often that we needed a team to restock it. So, we settled on feeding our neighbors as our project. We christened the endeavor Our Neighbor’s Plate and planned to serve healthy and delicious dinners once a week for six weeks. No one in the class had experience with this type of thing but we jumped in anyway, counting on God and our faith community. We received enough donations to get the ball rolling, ordered recycled take-out containers, and recruited teams to cook, clean, and distribute meals.
On our first night, we cranked up the outdoor grill, filling the air with marvelous smells. We held up hand-drawn signs that read “Free Meal Tonight! All are Welcome!” Then one tentative person after another drove up to ask what we were doing. Volunteers enthusiastically explained that we wanted to do something for the community in this difficult time; we begged them to take the food with no strings attached. As the spring evenings continued to be warmer and more lovely, word spread in the neighborhood around the church. Soon folks were walking up and talking to us before they grabbed a few meals to take home. An older lady came each week and picked up eight meals for shut-ins she knew. College students grabbed a meal to eat while they studied for final exams. A month into the program, we felt strongly that we needed to continue past our original six-week plan. Our Neighbor’s Plate (ONP) had grown into a ministry and everyone involved was deeply committed.
The next phase included learning to stretch our donations and look for new sources of food beyond the grocery store. God opened doors for us to continue and grow. We received some donations of food and began seeking other ways to make the program sustainable. We applied for the Michael Peeler/Virginia Casey grant from the NC Synod and were humbled to receive their vote of support! Our 2022 financial needs secured, we wrapped up our 2021 season in November as the weather turned colder and our volunteers moved into support for Room in the Inn, a local homeless ministry.
A few weeks ago, we lit the fire in the grill once again and fed 100 delicious meals to our neighbors. During the winter break, member Toni Hagerman brought her experience navigating this type of ministry and is currently leading ONP. We have instituted a Sunday prep day to involve more people in the congregation. Emphasizing this service opportunity as perfect for youth and families, we have grown our volunteer numbers significantly. Another new feature is the ability to offer folks a place to stay on-site and eat dinner together outdoors. We hope this will give the community a COVID-safe way to get to know each other better. This subtle shift speaks to the most profound gift of this ministry. According to Pastor Ward Misenheimer, “ONP has been an opportunity to remember that hunger is not only a lack of food but a deeper desire to be seen as a neighbor and to be known by name. Relationship is at the heart of ONP.” This is the work of being God’s people in the world and we are privileged to be a part of it.
What ministry of your congregation might benefit from the synod’s Michael Peeler/Virginia Casey Funds? Applications for 2022 are due April 30!