A Mission in Urban America
By Charles Robbins
“Then Gideon said to God, “Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test…” the bible story goes (Judges 6:39-40). God and Gideon were in a debate and in another test perhaps there might be a different outcome and then Gideon would be free not to accept God’s assignment.
And maybe those who are dressed in rags and who are hungry will wander over a few blocks away from our church’s neighborhood and someone else will take care of them. Like Gideon, we could deliberate, but the commission to serve the needy is concrete. Jesus said, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give to the Poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21).
Over twenty years ago, our Lazarus (Luke 16:19) came to St Gregory of Nyssa’s doorstep in Columbus, Ohio, but who was looking. Father Dan and Father Mark would regularly meet a few poor women at the back door of our small chapel we had rented, which was actually just an addition to a 1900’s home, one half mile east of the Ohio State University campus. Our two clergymen were setting the example. However, in those early years, while we, the parishioners were busy growing our congregation and concentrating on establishing our own facility just north of downtown Columbus in the middle of America, who was seeing the poor or listening to the homeless?
God did grant Gideon his request, “That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew.” And years later, as we established an Orthodox church on the corner of Oakland and Summit streets in the northeast quadrant of the campus area, God sent the homeless and poor to our door.
Not everyone was happy when several to dozens of needy people came to us for food vouchers after church on each Sunday. Several of our families were afraid of the homeless and disadvantaged in the area. We could hear statements like “my family and children are not safe” or “can’t we ask them to leave.” Over and over, shortly after moving into our new home for worship, we heard the word “safety”. In Judges, God tells Gideon to release those who were afraid. And some of our initial church members did leave. Our numbers were temporarily reduced.
The Outreach Ministry Takes Hold
Our parish continued and the needy people continued to come. In the informal years of the yet to be known Outreach Ministry, weekly, we would gather canned and boxed goods, bag them and distribute an entire sack of groceries to each visitor. Since then, the pantry has been running each week. The church council was providing Father Mark with money to buy food vouchers to local stores and we would distribute them. The homeless would still meet us on our deck on Sunday. They would join us there for coffee, pastries, and to receive their parcel of food.
One day, a rare day when I was at home in the middle of the afternoon, rather than at work. Father Dan calls, and shouts, “We will not feed them donuts anymore.” Still holding the phone away from my ear, I think, “What, no sweet rolls at coffee hour anymore.” There would be plenty of disappointed Orthodox Christians in our flock.
Asking a few questions, I determine that he wants to start a program that feeds the homeless a healthy meal and not just sweets. He says that our family is to purchase or make sandwiches and provide a wholesome meal to those who visit our church. Like Gideon, we do our best to follow mandates from within a hierarchal church and so we comply. We are a young parish, full of energy. In 30 days we begin the mission and no one has left our doorstep hungry since.
The St. Gregory Sandwich is Born
For lunch on Saturdays at noon, we served sandwiches as the main course, at the beginning. A typical menu would be two sandwich halves, and sides such as potato salad and three-bean casserole. We would provide fruit such as an apple, banana or an orange, cookies and punch. Over the years, as families were added to the list of volunteers, the meals became more elaborate, but the sandwich station is still in existence and is still the initial training area for first time workers.
When new helpers show up, a trainer aids them in getting their station setup. On a clean cutting board, they place two slices of Panera Bread, with the Â½-inch cut sourdough loaf being very popular. The sandwich maker then folds sliced turkey across one slice. On top of the turkey, two sliced tomatoes will sit and then sitting on them will be four dill pickles. The next layer has two thin sections of onion, followed by two pieces of Swiss cheese. The last stratum is a folded crisp lettuce leaf. Now that they are done with the first half, they spread mayonnaise on the second slice. We place the halves together and cut with a clean knife. Finally, we wrap sandwiches in plastic to keep them together and retain freshness.
After a person learns to make sandwiches, he or she typically becomes a regular and can operate as a periodic cook, a regular server, a pantry worker, or a builder. Not everyone who attends our church participates in the ministry, but nearly half do something to serve the poor within the program. The community needs our Christian church and the parishioners find in this, a way to live their faith.
Nine Years of Ministry
Today, after many years, our program management is meticulous. In January 2011, we are in our ninth year of outreach. Last year, over 100 individuals worked 3761.8 hours serving meals and working together on projects around the church. We received $42,401.69 in corporate and private food donations, served 2035 people one or more meals, and we had 1655 visitors to our pantry. We did not spend a single dollar on staff or to pay for the use of the church building, so every cent raised and canned goods collected went to support the poor.
For nearly a decade, we have many different groups involved in the operation of the food segment of the mission. We have fulltime staffers, regular cooks, special occasion volunteers, contributors, corporate pickup crews, schedule makers, college volunteers, liaisons to the clergy, parish council reps, church school helpers, and library workers. Our formal function begins on Thursday evening every week and finishes on Sunday afternoon with the drop-off of extra foodstuffs to Faith Mission, the largest outreach organization in the city.
Our program is also exciting. We have multiple areas that help any visitor They are:
However, most people initially show up just for the Saturday meal and to visit the pantry. Eventually, neighbors get involved in the others areas.
The Schedule for the Saturday Meal
Fulltime staffers arrive at eight o’clock in the morning and wrap the Panera Bread donation, have breakfast and start the day’s project. The pantry store crew arrives at 10:30 am, takes inventory, and sets up the clothing table. Cooks make a casserole for 35 people at home and arrive around 11 in the morning. Front line servers arrive about the same time as the cooks and begin to prep the sandwich station and to perform any additional tasks to start the meal at noon.
Already neighbors are arriving and having a cup of coffee and a snack since many have not eaten for a while. We recite the Lord’s Prayer at 12 noon. Women and children eat first. In the early years, the men did not altogether accept this policy, since our visitors were accustomed to taking and not sharing. Over the years, we all have learned to share at all levels.
Our food pantry survives on the dedication of our fulltime shopper, who buys groceries each week, the Sunday school teachers and students that bring the canned and boxed goods during their annual drive and from the pickup crews who deliver the Kroger and other store donations. Neighbors can return to their home with two or three bags of groceries each week.
Projects and Skill Training
If a person wishes to learn a skill, he or she can work in one of the established groups or work with our Projects manager who is completing a current job in one of the church buildings or in the neighborhood. We have an agreement with the University Area Commission to help with graffiti removal and we have adopted the entire block for litter pickup.
Every year, the church council is able to fund projects where many of the visitors can learn a skill. As the months progress, more and more neighbors participate in some form of ministry. In the last year, we have been responsible for all the exterior maintenance such as snow removal, grass trimming, gardening, and painting. These jobs are conducive for those who do not want to learn complex skills such as using computers and doing woodworking.
We are not shy when it comes to training. Over the years, our projects have given us the opportunity to train in carpentry, wall construction, painting, reupholstering, candy making, and silk-screening. When the church needs a project done, we get involved and people learn to work together and learn a trade. There is always an expert who can show novices the skills they need to know. By completing the task and receiving compliments from grateful people, the novice acquires the confidence to obtain regular or day work in the neighborhood.
Extending our Reach
Some of our neighbors eventually attend our religious education classes or come to church for Vespers or Liturgy. We always have several neighbors at a Sunday service. Those neighbors who are in church on the weekend are a valuable asset to those who show up looking for shelter or assistance. It takes people who are willing to listen to a problem and have some experience, to brainstorm a solution. Each person in need has his or her own story and condition. There is a process to helping, but it all begins with caring.
When people ask us what is going right, we have to say that we work on our ministry every day. The outreach program requires attention and work. Our logbooks show our communication with contributors and when actual work is completed. The funny thing is that when we started, we were going to have our program run just one day a month. We fixed that right away.
Over the years, people move into and out of the church. This happens in both the neighborhood and in the parish, so we continually have to train personnel. During the school year, we have Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF) students each month working behind the counter and on projects. Our own newcomers group is active helping where needed and several other church groups throughout the city also provide volunteers regularly.
Our own church schoolteachers and several mothers set the example of Christian charity by always remembering that the poor and hungry are in that condition not just during Thanksgiving and Christmas time, but all through the year. These mothers of humanity bring items from their homes; pick up extra food when grocery shopping or just have their husbands drop off clothes during all seasons. Although busy, these moms never forget those who need our help.
We have plenty of success stories over the months, from people sending cards thanking for the heat being turned on, to a young couple who was shuttled from home to home during a very cold winter just to survive. But mission workers come regularly because there is an eye to eye special connection between two people who share food and their extra coat. Sometimes a smile, a tear, or a single word paints the picture.
The Outreach Program is a mission that has built a stronger group of Christians to serve. It has transformed our Orthodox community into a parish that acts on Faith and that is reflected in the dedication of the priests, deacons, teachers, parents, students, and children. The key was and is to act on these Words of God.
Matthew 35 “For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.”