By Brett Hetherington*
The United Methodist credo of “Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors” is one that inspires images of the church being a loving, welcoming place where anyone can come, no matter their life station or circumstances. Recently I was able to see this motto play out in a very real way.
On the third and fourth Wednesdays of every month Family of Faith United Methodist Church (Canal District) opens its doors wide and invites in anyone who needs a home-cooked meal. There is no target audience or specific demographic that the church is trying to reach. Anyone who wants to partake of the meal is welcome, no questions asked.
“A while back, when Lyndon Johnson was president and we started to notice that there were poor people in our city, we wanted to start a free lunch,” shares Carol Reitz, the woman who oversees this ministry. She shared that, back then, the church was very different than it is today. There was initial pushback and her idea was met with skepticism. Beyond the fact that starting a new ministry would cost the church money, Reitz shared that there was another pretty significant issue that concerned members of the church.
“At that time the church was not very welcoming. People didn’t want ‘those kinds of people’ to come into the building. Since I was a youth leader at that time, I asked the church board if we could start a free lunch ministry if it did not cost the church anything.”
The church board agreed, and the youth of the church hosted a rock-a-thon to raise money to start this new outreach. When the fundraiser was complete Reitz, her husband Dick and the youth group had $325 to purchase the supplies they needed to start sharing free meals with the community. This was more than 40 years ago, and this ministry has been running ever since.
Today the ministry has become a vital outreach of the church. Operating costs come from money donated by individuals and entire Sunday school classes. The treasurer is one of the volunteers who was serving the day I visited, and she shared that there is even a portion of the church budget that is set aside to help fund this ministry. Reitz is both the first and fifth individual who volunteers her time to oversee the free lunch ministry. She started it and after years away has stepped back into the leadership role. “We have got a group of people who are very interested in reaching out to the community.”
Food is prepared in the church kitchen and served in the fellowship hall by a team of volunteers. Their camaraderie is very joyful, and it brings a smile to just about every individual who comes through the doors. The volunteers have a lot of fun, and there is a lot of laughter. In addition to serving a free meal, church members offer community members a listening ear, prayers, free blood pressure screening, and more.
Two years ago, Family of Faith UMC entered into a partnership with the Akron Food Bank. Each lunch day there are several tables piled with assorted goods provided by the Food Bank for individuals to take home. Those who come to the meal are encouraged to stop into the Food Bank for anything that they and their family need. The church supplements this partnership by offering other supplies ranging from toiletries to gently-worn clothes that have been donated or purchased. Anyone who walks through the doors can walk out with a full stomach, and a shopping bag filled with goods that will keep them clothed, clean and fed. There were not many people who came out who wanted to share their story, but the few who were willing to talk to me all shared the same broad points. They were thankful for such love and acceptance; they were humbled by a church that cares so much for them; and they are happy to share with others that this church is doing good work in Akron.
“We have personally invited those who come to join us on a Sunday morning for years.” Carol shared. The church often sees people from the Wednesday free meal filter into a Sunday morning worship or seek counseling from the pastor. She shared that when this ministry began church members were predominantly white and looked down their noses at those who were different than them. But now she says proudly that the church is more diverse in every way, and it has become more welcoming to outsiders.
Just before I left, Reitz offered one final thought that seems to sum up how she feels about this ministry that has become a real legacy. “I don’t think we are proud, but we are very happy with what we are doing. It keeps us going.”
If you have a story of how God is using your local church to transform the community, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. The East Ohio Conference Communications team wants to tell your story.
*Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.