By Brett Hetherington*
It is not uncommon to find a United Methodist church that excels at offering meals as a ministry, especially during the last 18 months. But in the southern hills of the East Ohio Conference there is a gem of a tucked-away community whose people saw the need for a ministry that offers something more than hot meals.
The Rev. Lee Ann Dunlap serves the McConnelsville Grace Charge (Southern Hills District) which includes McConnelsville Grace, McKendree, and Pisgah United Methodist Churches. Though the three are small membership churches, their congregations have large hearts and feel the pulse of the community.
“The folks had a Wednesday night prayer and Bible study going on where they noted there were some homeless folks living under bridges in the community,” Dunlap shared. “Those folks decided that this community needs a hot lunch program.”
This was back in 2019. Dunlap was somewhat resistant at first, noting that it was very easy to come up with ideas in her head of why they could not accomplish this task. “But then a switch flipped, and I went from ‘we can’t do this’ to ‘if we were to do it what would it look like?’” she said. Three hours later a plan came together.
“I looked at a calendar and figured if we offered meals five days a week, we would need to plan for 20 days a month,” Dunlap said. “If we divided that up among 20 teams the work would not be too much at all!” Dunlap sent out letters to 40 churches initially, including the 21 United Methodist churches in the county. “Between one-third to one-half of the churches on the calendar are Methodist churches.”
Dunlap also serves on the Rotary and was able to encourage other members to volunteer teams to serve, adding to the roster that includes other churches from around the county, three different hospice groups, and more. Each team plans out the meal it will offer, ranging anywhere from sack lunches to hot casseroles, and then serves it with joy. “Doers decide is a motto I use here,” offered Dunlap.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the MoCo Feeds ministry – named for the Morgan County residents it serves – regularly saw its meeting space filled with people conversing, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company. When MoCo Feeds, like many organizations and businesses, had to pause operations because of State of Ohio mandates aimed at stopping the spread of the coronavirus Dunlap was only concerned with those the ministry had been serving. “I told the Health Department ‘just tell me what I need to do to open back up.’”
Of all the things that MoCo Feeds offers the people that come through its doors, food may be the least important. Dunlap is present for most of the meals offered each month and knows nearly everyone, if not by name, then by their face and their story. In the span of just about an hour Dunlap was able to have conversations with individuals about family members who were at home not doing well physically, with struggles they were enduring at home. One young woman had finally been able to procure a car for transportation to work, and Dunlap was able to share the broad strokes of this young woman’s story.
Every individual coming through the doors has a story to share and the story of many – if not all – is one of loneliness.
“A lot of people who are going to free lunch programs are feeling forgotten. And when you are feeling forgotten and someone remembers you that is a big deal,” shared newly appointed Southern Hills District Superintendent the Rev. Laura White, who visited MoCo Feeds in early July to see the ministry in action and to pitch-in where she was able. On that day there were 28 people who were served by the ministry. “That is 28 people who that might be the only hot meal they have today. That is a huge difference in this little town, tucked away between these hills that probably doesn’t get a lot of traffic coming through.”
McConnelsville is indeed tucked away in between hills, with little cellular reception and far from larger cities. “People will live here for the lower cost of housing, and then commute the long distance for work,” said Dunlap. “Everyone goes to Zanesville or Marietta.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic MoCo Feeds was permitted to shift operations to a takeout model. This made the connectional portion of the ministry more difficult, with people only being present for a few moments to gather their food and leave. “Folks still don’t come in like they used to,” Dunlap said. “We used to have a family of four or five come in and sit to eat, and even since we were able to open up with in-house seating – social distanced of course – it is still primarily takeout these days.”
But some of the regular faces have returned. The relationships that MoCo Feeds and the teams running the ministry foster with those they serve continues to grow. People do not simply come in, take their food and leave. There is conversation, there is shared joy. MoCo Feeds continues to feed more than just the body of those who walk through the doors. The ministry continues to feed the heart, and to feed the soul of many who feel forgotten.
The Conference Communications team would like to share other stories that highlight ways that each of us is answering the call of Bishop Tracy S. Malone to reach out to our communities in creative ways. Please e-mail your ministry story to EOC Director of Communications Rick Wolcott at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.