In 2002, God called us to launch an interracial church for the lost and left out: addicts, alcoholics, ex-offenders and their families. There are 167 churches in Charlottesville, Virginia, but few welcome these outcasts. A group of ten Christians applied to the American Baptist Churches of the USA for support for a new church. God’s timing is always perfect! The New Life 2010 initiative had just been established with a goal of “planting 1,010 new churches, reaching 1,000,010 new believers and vitalizing a multitude of caring ministries by the year 2010.” The American Baptists offered us $25,000 and two years of training at the Church Planters’ Institute to establish New Beginnings Christian Community.
The Institute emphasized the importance of listening to the needs and gifts of our members and visitors. So when two older women, who were dependent on disability assistance, expressed their concern for the hungry people who came to our worship service, we began offering breakfast. But one meal a week was not enough. We then asked our members to donate canned goods. When those supplies proved inadequate, Maureen Little Path, a member of the Lakota Sioux tribe, along with her friend, Peggy Mayo, suggested that we join the Blue Ridge Food Bank. The Food Bank is a member of Feeding America, the largest domestic hunger relief agency in the United States, supporting more than 200 food banks across the country. Thus, we began our Food Ministry seventeen years ago.
Every Wednesday, Peggy and Maureen picked up food from the Food Bank and stored it in Pastor Liz Emrey’s garage. Our church could only afford to rent a space for worship on Sunday mornings, thus Rev. Emrey’s garage was recruited for storing the food in the two refrigerators and freezers donated by Lowe’s. At first, 20 – then eventually seventy – people “shopped” for canned goods, frozen meat, vegetables, fruits, and bakery products after our Sunday worship service. Our outreach kept multiplying through word of mouth.
When health concerns were raised about storing food in the garage, we rented a room at neighboring Hinton Avenue Methodist Church. For the next four years, we provided food after our Sunday worship services at nearby Clark Elementary School. Impressed by our expanding number of volunteers and “shoppers,” the Food Bank connected us with Wal-Mart, which donated thousands of pounds of food with an expiring shelf life.
Over the years, we expanded our ministry team to Co-Pastors, Liz Emrey and Brenda Brown-Grooms, and Associate Minister Rev. Gregory A. Moyer. In 2015, we were finally able to fully rent a building 24/7. Our new home in downtown Charlottesville is near a bus line and also has a storage room for our refrigerators, freezers, and shelves for groceries. Along with our enlarged space came donations from Food Lion. We then switched to handing out food on Saturdays to accommodate people from other churches.
Early on, we decided that we would not require any identification so that we could welcome people who were undocumented or homeless. This meant that we were excluded from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) surplus food distribution and needed to rely on grants to supplement our food supply. With God’s guidance, we successfully obtained funding from the American Baptist Churches USA’s Matthew 25 Grant, Food Lion, Dave Matthew’s Band BAMA Works, Charlottesville Area Community Foundation, Carecasters Foundation, Breeden Fund, Aetna, Mercy Fund, and Lowe’s. Some of our “shoppers” even donated vegetables from their gardens.
We constantly emphasize that our Food Ministry is an expression of Christ’s love for our community. Thus, we encourage our “shoppers” to be givers as well as takers. Many of them bring extra cans and pasta to donate. There is a real spirit of generosity among the recipients. Everyone is polite and helpful. There is no grabbing or pushing.
Since the pandemic, our Food Ministry has multiplied three-fold. We are now open four days a week serving 300-350 and occasionally 400 needy families. Many people have come to our Food Ministry for the first time. Some of them have lost their jobs; others had their hours cut back. One in six Charlottesville residents – nearly 8,000 people – lacks access to affordable, healthy food. Families have to choose between paying rent, which has gone up 42% in Charlottesville since 2011, or providing groceries for their loved ones.
As news of our Food Ministry has spread locally, we have attracted many new volunteers. Now, not only our church members collect, sort, and distribute the food, but also members from Congregation Beth Israel, The Charlottesville Unitarian Universalist Church, Olivet Presbyterian Church, Christ Community Church and an assortment of non-affiliated Charlottesvillians. Even the local jail has volunteered to supply us with work-release inmates. This has expanded our understanding of inclusiveness in God’s beloved community.
Our volunteers do not hand people pre-packaged bags of assorted groceries because “one size does not fit all.” Even hungry people have particular tastes and preferences as well as food allergies. We also do not want to find our donations discarded on curbsides. All the food is laid out on tables in our Fellowship Hall. Following CDC guidelines, with masks and social distancing, our volunteers put the shopper’s choices in bags, handing it to them one person at a time.
Not only do our volunteers pick up, set up, hand out, and clean up for our Food Ministry, but they also deliver to the homebound. At the request of our local social service agencies, we are delivering groceries to the low-income senior apartments, several refugee families, and the disabled. Our Food Ministry continues to expand as we listen to every segment of our community.
We also offer restaurant-cooked, take-out meals from World Central Kitchen. In addition, The Enrichment Alliance of Virginia supplies educational toys, which are particularly needed during this time of quarantine. Our ministry keeps growing.
The pandemic has forced our congregation to discontinue meeting in our building. (We have Zoom Bible studies and worship services on YouTube and on our public access television station.) But our church has stayed open and reaching out to people through our Food Ministry. Our worship of God is not just in words and music but also in caring for our hungry neighbors. We have become a beacon of love in Charlottesville during these dark days with a flood of new volunteers, “shoppers,” and donations from the community, including young people giving us their stimulus checks. We praise God for Maureen and Peggy who listened to God’s guidance to establish our Food Ministry. We pray we can continually be attentive to our members and visitors who are echoing Jesus’ prophetic call, “When I was hungry, you fed me.”
For Reflection and Discussion:
- What are the needs of your visitors and members? Are you willing to listen to those with new ideas to serve your community, regardless of what their social or economic status is?
- How do you preserve the dignity of the people you serve?
- The BWA affirms, “We are called to love one another. By this, we demonstrate that we are Christ’s disciples. We believe that true unity and fellowship can never be achieved until relationships move beyond acknowledgment of and respect for the other and toward care and concern.” How does your church show care and concern for your whole community, including people of different denominations and faiths? Do you welcome non-Christians to work with you, demonstrating to them the meaning of Christ’s love?
- What organizations in your community can you partner with in serving your neighbors in need?
- How has the pandemic affected your community? Has it caused you to begin new ministries or expand your present services to the needy?
In this age of pandemic, when a lie is told as the truth and the truth is suspected to be a lie, we know you have asked us to feed the hungry, to care for the poor, lonely, and afraid. You have sent us to be your representatives, your light in the world. Use our arms and feet and ears and eyes and intelligence and hearts to care for our brothers and sisters and the other creatures upon the earth – indeed the earth itself. Let us not fail to be faithful to you, to others, and to ourselves. You reward faithfulness, it is true. But truer still is your abundant love for us. Our grateful, feeble response is to attempt to love others as you love us. Let us feed others and care for them and help when and where we can.
We trust that when we need help, you will send brothers and sisters to help us as you send us when needs arise. Thank you for entrusting us with Kingdom work. We say Amen in the matchless name of Jesus, who is the Christ.