SNAP to it Food Stamp Challenge–Day 25

By Sharron R. Blezard, June 25, 2010

Feed my Sheep

In the last chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus and the disciples have just finished sharing an abundant meal of bread and fish when Jesus commands Peter three times to feed others. Jesus was making a strong point with Simon Peter about what it means to minister to people—both body and soul. Peter sounds frustrated and confused by Jesus’ three-fold question about love. You can almost hear him cry internally, “Of course I love you! What do you want me to do, juggle fish and walk on water?”

The care and feeding of others is a vital part of any ministry, and it’s virtually impossible to share the gospel with a person if his or her immediate needs for food, shelter, and security are unmet. Love is best understood as a verb—shown rather than told, lived instead of imagined. When ministry is organic in nature, when it grows from the heart and takes root in hope, and when people’s needs are met with dignity and compassion, then love is present and so is Christ.

Kate Raiford might not describe herself as a minister, but she does ministry. As coordinator of the North Shore Fellowship (PCA) Angel Food Ministry, Kate and her congregation are making a difference one 30-pound box of food at a time. The program started close to the heart, out of Kate’s own life experience. She took some time to visit with me yesterday morning to talk about her work with Angel Food in the North Shore Community of Chattanooga, Tennessee.

“There was a time when I was trying to buy groceries for my family of five on $40,” she says, “and I just couldn’t get the healthy food we needed. It was a tough time. I heard about Angel Food Ministries and bought a box.” Kate’s experience convinced her that others were experiencing the same dilemma of having more month than money and could benefit from Angel Food. “I approached our minister, and the congregation and presbytery began looking at what would be involved in hosting this ministry at North Shore Fellowship.”

In the meantime Kate became active as a volunteer for a site near her home. The months she volunteered helped her understand and get a feel for how to run a site, so that by the time North Shore Fellowship was prepared to proceed, she was ready to coordinate the effort.

“I had great visions of how God could use us,” she said. “We had volunteers lined up to serve hot chocolate and greet people. We had generous donors within the congregation whose gifts enabled us to purchase extra boxes to give away.”

Initially the program drew 100-150 people each month; however, during the ensuing four years the community has experienced phenomenal growth and upscale demographic change, and the numbers have leveled off. “Now we see 50-70 and maybe 30-50 in the summer,” Kate said. At least two homeless communities are no longer in the area, likely due to upscale housing and retail development and a resulting change in the population base. “If you can afford to shop at Green Life,” she said looking around at the busy store, “you’re probably not going to get Angel Food.”

Angel Food Ministries participates in SNAP, although the North Shore program hasn’t seen a marked increase during the current recession.

“We might see 20 SNAP participants one month and only one person the next month.” Asked why, Kate ponders the question carefully. “My theory is that there are a great number of people who can’t get into SNAP, who can’t run through the paperwork.” Without transportation, access to records and a computer or an advocate to assist, the process can indeed be a daunting one.

“On the other side you have people in dire immediate need, say between jobs, who don’t anticipate being in need for the length of time it takes to get into the program. You have families that are literally, like I once was, counting change to buy gas, and then you also have those who are unfamiliar with the program and what options are available or who don’t have a caseworker.” She smiled, “Pride can be an issue, too. It’s not simple. There are many reasons.”

As asked about her perception of need and hunger in the community, Kate again turned reflective, first describing the unique position of North Shore Fellowship as an urban church plant of a large Presbyterian congregation on Lookout Mountain, an affluent and well-established community.

“North Shore Fellowship draws people from all areas of the city and now includes two locations in North Chattanooga. There is also recognition of the change in ministry context and culture as the community changes, and the leadership has been responsive to the shifting demographics while being faithful to the organic, parish nature that is one of North Shore Fellowship’s strengths.

“We partner with other congregations and non-profits in the area to do ministry. Angel Food is the first ministry we’ve undertaken solely as a congregation. Our goal is to be of value to the neighborhood, to work with others and not to displace existing ministries.”

Her position has given her insight into the nature of poverty and need.

“I think it’s relational,” she said, “As a college-educated, white woman, my normal is not necessarily someone else’s normal, and it may never be their normal. Sometimes we try to change other people’s normal, to rescue them from their normal.”

The most successful ministries are those that work alongside people, not over and above them. Jesus met every person on his or her level, affirming individual dignity and worth, and bringing hope and restoration to society. Just as Jesus asked Peter about his love and commitment, the same question is posed to us. “Feed my sheep,” Jesus says.

Kate and North Shore Fellowship are responding to Jesus’ mandate through Angel Food one person and one box at a time. They may not be walking across the Tennessee River or practicing their fish juggling skills, but they are faithfully making a difference. How about you? Would you be willing to share your story?

State of the Pantry

Breakfast was an apple, peanut butter, and coffee. I was invited to join a dear friend for lunch at a little bakery/café on Signal Mountain, enjoying vegetarian quiche, a salad, and key lime ice cream. Supper was leftover pasta. Tea and lemon water round out the day, although I sense chocolate lurking on the horizon. Truly a blessed food day!

Website(s) of the Day

Click here to visit Angel Food Ministries website, where you can read about the organization’s founding, find recipes, information on how to become an Angel Food site, and how to apply for SNAP.

If you want to learn more about the work of the North Shore Fellowship (PCA), click here to see what Kate and her fellow Christians are doing within this community of believers and within the communities they serve.

About the Author

The Rev. Sharron Riessinger Blezard is an ELCA pastor currently rostered in the Lower Susquehanna Synod. She came to ordained ministry after teaching secondary and college English, working in non-profit management and public relations, and moonlighting as a freelance writer. See more posts by .

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