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Church food ministries serve thousands

AUSTIN (BP) — It was never his plan, never his desire, but for six years Ellis Johnson called the streets of Austin home.

“Six years on the street humbled me a lot,” Johnson said in a telephone interview from his new home in Austin.

Johnson, like many of his peers living on the street, made bad choices, burned bridges and alienated anyone who might have been willing to lend a hand. Alcohol and drug abuse led to a two-year prison term in the 1990s and another “mistake” landed him on the streets in 2008. But the persistent compassion of Christians serving Austin’s homeless reminded Johnson someone cared. He knew there was hope.

For Johnson, help came to him through Austin’s Mobile Loaves and Fishes (MLF) ministry, which takes food and basic personal care items to the homeless. Beginning in 1998 with five St. John Neumann Catholic Church parishioners who set out to meet the needs of Austin’s homeless, the ministry is now duplicated in five cities in four states. In Austin, 11 catering trucks make daily runs to one of the 150 “places of need” as designated by MLF staff.

Eight years ago, Lake Hills Church saw no need to reinvent the wheel by creating their own hunger relief ministry, so they partnered with the MLF network of churches and local businesses feeding Austin’s homeless.

Whitney Wiseman, missions director for Lake Hills, a church in the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, manages two of the catering trucks and 750 church volunteers who serve monthly. Each day 10-20 volunteers meet at the church in far west Austin to make sandwiches for 100 sack lunch meals and load them into the trucks, which are then driven to various locations.

The hungry on Austin’s streets know that the white trucks with their silver catering bays mean more than a meal and a new pair of socks. Like so many feeding ministries across the state, MLF transformed itself to meet needs that lingered long after a person’s hunger was sated. During one distribution, Johnson met MLF co-founder Alan Graham, and his life was changed.

“I told him I needed to get off the street,” Johnson said.

With Graham’s assistance, Johnson got a landscaping job with MLF and Lake Hills Church, where he now attends. MLF also paid the deposit for his site at a trailer park where Johnson has lived since January in an MLF-owned fifth-wheel trailer. Johnson pays the rent.

While the annual Southern Baptist Convention Global Hunger Relief campaign provides an opportunity for churches across the nation to address the issue of worldwide hunger, churches in Texas and elsewhere daily strive to meet the endless needs of the poor and marginalized in their communities. Church food pantries operated from spare rooms where basic staples were meted out have morphed into cooperative efforts among likeminded faith groups, business leaders and community members to feed the needy.

When, for example, 74-year-old Gisela Lenz agreed to lead a food ministry at her Baptist church in Del Rio, Texas, in 2009, she quickly realized the needs of the community far surpassed the 35 families served each month. She asked the congregation for more support, and they gave it wholeheartedly.

Within 18 months, the ministry was serving 648 families a month — and in need of a new distribution site.

Asking for assistance does not faze Lenz, who is not one to take “no” for an answer. She found new housing in an unused school building that the district rents to the Val Verde County Loaves and Fishes for a penny a month.

The needs of the community have never outpaced God’s provision, Lenz said. Overwhelming needs have been met in ways that left the German immigrant stunned, thrilled and grateful.

“It happens all the time. All the time,” she said repeatedly.

Lenz and her husband Gary are now members of Esperanza Community Church of Del Rio, one of 10 local churches invested in Val Verde County Loaves and Fishes. Support also comes from individuals, local businesses and nearby Laughlin Air Force Base.

With neighbors helping neighbors, Lenz said, “It was time for the city to step up.”

She presented her request to the mayor of Del Rio, and the ministry received a $10,000-per-year aid commitment, while cash donations help pay for supplies from the Val Verde County Food Bank.

Of the 31,626 individuals served by Val Verde County Loaves and Fishes last year, 80 percent were age 60 or older, many who thought Social Security would see them through their senior years. Hispanic workers earning low wages also comprise a large portion of the nearly 32,000 who benefit from the ministry.

“We want the needy to know God is in [this ministry]. It is so obvious He is in it,” Lenz said.

Four hours north of Del Rio, First Baptist Church in Odessa operates another faith-based cooperative to feed those living on the streets.

Like the other ministries, Hope for the Homeless takes a holistic approach to caring for the homeless, said Earl Claypool, First Baptist’s pastor of missions. The ministry, which provides a hot meal once a month, outgrew its original site — a house behind a local Catholic church — and now meets in Odessa’s three city community centers. Claypool said the sites allow volunteers to feed the 125-200 guests and to operate venues that provide clothing, haircuts and glasses.

Because of the transient nature of the homeless population, Claypool said it is difficult to establish relationships that lead to greater accountability and assistance. But, he said, the church also works closely with clients at the Permian Basin Mission Center, another broad-based cooperative. Most of its clients are families struggling to make ends meet, some because of job loss and others because of the struggle to feed large families.

Regardless of whom they serve, Claypool said each guest has the opportunity to have their souls fed as well as their stomachs. No one leaves without having heard the Gospel message.

Because his soul has been satisfied, Johnson has no desire to experience the starvation of homelessness again.

“There’s a lot of people caring for me,” Johnson told the Southern Baptist TEXAN. “If I ruined it, that would hurt a lot of people. I already did that at the beginning.”

Since getting off the streets, Johnson, 49, has reconciled with family members he had not seen since he was 10 years old. He said he may spend Christmas with them in their West Texas home.

In the meantime, Johnson works, attends Bible studies and will lead a Street Retreat — a program created by MLF to give people an opportunity to experience life on the streets for a few nights. It will be Johnson’s first opportunity to lead. Although he questioned his abilities, he was grateful for the opportunity.

“Through God all things are possible,” he said. “My weeks are busy. It’s good to be busy.”

    About the Author

  • Bonnie Pritchett/Southern Baptist Texan