By Brett Hetherington*
“If there are people in your community who do not have food, or enough food, this is what churches exist for, to be a blessing to the community,” said Pastor Brett Bartels of Heart 4 the City Ministries (Canal District) in Akron.
His words are not lip service given to a problem that the church sees in the world around them. No, they are a rallying cry for First Thursday, a life-giving ministry that Heart 4 the City leads in partnership with the Akron Food Bank. At 6:00 a.m. on the first Thursday of every month a truck delivers 10,000 to 15,000 pounds of food to the church. By 7:00 a.m. a volunteer team of church members and a few clients (who Heart 4 the City like to call “friends”) arrive to sort the food and prepare a distribution line. The food is varied, consisting of perishable and non-perishable goods and a large quantity of fresh fruits and vegetables. Doors to the church are opened at 8:30 a.m. and friends are welcomed in to go through a short process of registration, allowing the Food Bank to track people who are availing themselves of their services.
“We operate with the idea that if they come here for food, we will give them food. Some of these people have been coming for six, seven years, and this is the only time we see them in church,” Bartels shared.
As this is a program that is a partnership between a government organization and a church, Heart 4 the City is not allowed to hand out information about their ministries. But Bartels shares that people who come through their line are more than happy to talk about their struggles, and even ask for prayer from the church volunteers. The event is not advertised formally, and people find out about it largely through word of mouth.
Bartels said that some who receive this blessing each month receive more food than they can use, but it doesn’t go to waste.
“Some of our friends are older single women who have too much food to eat by themselves, so they share it with their neighbors. We are sharing with them, and they are sharing with their neighbors,” he said.
One such friend, with tears in her eyes, shared with me that the people she sees each month at Heart 4 the City, “always treat you well, and are very, very generous people. They treat you like family and are not judgmental.”
This First Thursday distribution sees 100+ people each month and is overseen by a core of about 10 volunteers. There are additional volunteers who come either from other agencies, from within the church, or are those who have been blessed by the ministry in the past and want to give back. Bartels says that this year alone there have been around 1,500 different people who have served.
The First Thursday program is just one of the days throughout each month that Heart 4 the City opens its doors to feed the hungry in the community.
On the other Thursdays, the church hosts its own food pantry in the evening, coordinated by Tammy Heffernan. Volunteers from the church, a local Boy Scout troop, friends from First Thursday and others spend time handing out, to those in need, the goods left over from First Thursday and other items donated by church families and through other interesting channels.
“I am really good at getting stuff for free,” Heffernan told me before sharing about partnerships the church has established with a few local grocery stores to purchase food at deep discounts to stock the food pantry shelves. The partnerships are crucial because Heffernan said the church does not have the financial resources to provide for this ministry in its budget.
“What keeps me passionate is seeing the looks on people’s faces when they come through. They are so thankful. And knowing that at any time it could be any one of us who needs help,” she shared.
The food distribution ministry has birthed another outreach program for the church. Backpack Buddies assists students who participate in the breakfast program at the local elementary school.
“They (school officials) noticed that some of the kids were coming in on Mondays and were ravenous, asking for more and more. They asked them why they were so hungry, and the kids told them ‘We don’t have anything to eat at home on the weekend.’”
The school did some more research and discovered that more than 200 of its 500 students didn’t have enough food for the weekend. So, Heart 4 the City partnered to provide two breakfasts, two lunches, and two snacks for 30 students every weekend. A school counselor distributes the meals discreetly to those in need to help protect the children from potential bullying.
“It is interesting to figure out what we can provide, because you can’t give a can of soup. You don’t know if the family has a can opener! But it is a joy every week,” Bartels said.
The people of Heart 4 the City have been serving their community by giving away food for nearly 10 years, with just a small food pantry. What began as a small outreach has grown into a massive example of the love of Christ that the church has for the community. Someone even donated a golf cart to aid those who have a hard time walking get up the hill to their car once they have collected their food.
Between the prayers he has been asked to say to the many questions he has been asked, Bartels knows that food shortage is just one issue impacting the lives of those in the community. But he says that’s exactly why the church is here.
“We know this is just a band-aid ministry for some of our friends,” he said. “If I were to be honest, I would say I would think every church should do this, right? The church serves as a great middleman, for lack of a better word, between a service like a food bank and the local community, to say ‘Hey, we’re here to help and just distribute or buy and distribute however it works out best for each individual church.’”
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.