“You give them something to eat”

Guest commentary by Elizabeth Lovell Milford

“You give them something to eat.” This is the simple instruction Jesus gives his disciples in the Synoptic Gospel accounts of the feeding of the multitudes.

At Heritage Presbyterian Church (HPC) in Acworth, Georgia, responding to hunger in our community is part of our core identity as a congregation. For 30 years, the Jay Weaver Emergency Food Pantry (JWEFP) has provided support to neighbors within 5 miles of the church through individually scheduled appointments and monthly drive-through pantries, partnering with the local community food bank. Addressing food insecurity for children, HPC partners with our local schools to sponsor three school pantries that provide weekend food backpacks and snacks for nine public schools and counting. Children, young people and school volunteers assist with these programs, developing life skills and learning to serve their classmates.

So, what happens to programs like these when a global pandemic closes schools, workplaces and even church buildings? This was our new reality in March 2020. Assessing the extremely high level of need throughout the area, Andrea Dean, volunteer director of JWEFP, got to work.

The session immediately responded with the affirmation that our call continued for our neighbors in need: “You give them something to eat.” Volunteers arrived to pre-pack boxes for a contact-free, drive-up service. We expanded the pantry from a side storage room to the entire fellowship hall and adjacent classrooms, allowing for additional deliveries of dry goods, frozen meats and fresh produce. Facilities leaders adapted a side door to make way for pallets to be delivered. Cloth masks were sewn. An online registration form was created. Grants were written to secure funding resulting in more than $37,000 awarded, including a grant from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. These funds went toward the purchase of food, thereby allowing pantry reserves to be used for other needs, including significant repairs to our walk-in cooler. We shared pictures and made a video to increase support from local community partners.

In just a few weeks, a hallmark ministry of this congregation had evolved and adapted to a very new situation, with the intention of meeting a much wider community’s needs for a month or two. Then through summer. Then into fall. By the end of 2020, the mission committee recommended to session that this expanded drive-up pantry continue through at least July 2021, fully dedicating the resources of our fellowship hall and adjacent classrooms for JWEFP. It was approved without hesitation. “You give them something to eat.”

Each week, volunteers (middle schoolers through seniors) meet in small groups to receive donations and purchases, pack boxes and distribute everything in a contact-free drive-up process. What was previously 25-30 families served per month has become 80-100 families served per week, in just under an hour’s time. Recipients represent a range of demographics, reminding us that the impacts of this pandemic are far-reaching. Each household receives over 100 pounds of food, which includes: pantry staples, frozen meats, dairy products, fresh produce and baked goods from additional retail partners. Households also receive cleaning supplies, paper products and hygiene items as available.

A first-time visitor who had been laid off from his job told the director: “Given some hard times, I visited your emergency food pantry for the first time today. And I was frankly overwhelmed with the generosity of what I received. I’ve never been to one before, so I did not know what to expect. But this was certainly more than I imagined!”

At the beginning of 2020, HPC launched a momentum plan to build the energy gained from a recently completed visioning process. We committed to be a “sailboat church,” inspired by Joan Gray’s book by the same name, following the guidance of the Holy Spirit and letting go of our need to hold things tightly in order to be led by Christ into the future. Little did we know how faithfully we would be called to live into this intention. Less than a month after we brought a literal sailboat into the sanctuary, our doors needed to close. But our hearts, minds and spirits remained open to where God was leading.

With gifts offered from many places and by many people, blessings have been multiplied and over 4,600 households have literally been fed. “You give them something to eat,” continues to be our call. We celebrate the ways in which we have been able to respond as disciples of Jesus Christ. And in this sharing with our community, we too have been filled. Thanks be to God.

ELIZABETH LOVELL MILFORD is the pastor of Heritage Presbyterian Church in Acworth, Georgia.