By Joe Henderson | FLUMC
The year 2020 will be remembered for the catastrophe of COVID-19 and the thousands of deaths it wrought across Florida and the nation. It is the year of economic collapse and the calamity that lost income has on families.
And it will be a time when people everywhere were confronted by the horror of racial injustice, a plague that had been simmering for decades and now has erupted onto the streets.
It can be overwhelming.
But even in this trying time, people can also remember 2020 as the year The Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church stepped up across the state to be the hands and feet of Jesus.
Under the leadership of Bishop Kenneth H. Carter, the Conference set a bold goal of providing three million meals in the next calendar year to those most in need. The initiative is called Fill the Table and the official roll-out is scheduled for July 6.
The aim is to engage 100,000 United Methodists throughout Florida to help provide food to individuals and families facing devastation during this pandemic. This will be an interfaith effort – we are encouraging partnership with various community organizations as well.
“There are simply massive human needs. Florida is a beautiful and prosperous state with a fragile safety net. We needed a tangible way to share with each other,” Bishop Carter said.“God’s grace is sufficient, and sometimes there is even an abundance. But many enter now into a season of scarcity, and this was a way of connecting us."
To accomplish the goal, the Bishop formed a 24-person task force of Conference leaders familiar with the problems faced by the needy. Many churches and organizations already provide food banks and other services, but the idea is to connect them all and engage others not currently involved.
That connection will help the Conference better measure both the impact of the services provided, but also determine if there is additional need.
“Bishop Carter was asking what the appropriate response from the United Methodists would be to the coronavirus pandemic,” said Clarke Campbell-Evans of the Conference Office of Missional Engagement. “He engaged a lot of people and settled on serving meals to the most vulnerable, hungry people because of the tremendous impact the pandemic has had in this state.
“We want to celebrate that stellar work by churches who do that well, but also to invite others to step up into this powerful movement. Not only feeding hungry Floridians, but also as advocacy for justice ministries.”
It was quickly apparent how personal this endeavor was for the participants.
“I recall from childhood my parents cooking food and boxing groceries to take to my cousins living in a rent-controlled apartment in New York. I had never seen that done and when I questioned them, I was told that my uncle’s employment as a construction worker left them short on money during the winter months,” Justice Ministries Director Rev. Dr. Sharon Austin said.
“These images were seared in my brain, and the years added the systemic and political issues associated with hunger. Later, as a seminarian and throughout 40 years of ministry, I was repeatedly faced with nutrition-challenged families among the families of women I came to know as a prison chaplain.”
For Molly McEntire of Missional Engagement, it’s a chance to discover new ways of helping those who need it most.
“What has most opened my eyes is how much we can learn from each other and learn from organizations in our community. I think about CROS ministries who serves such a vulnerable population. What would be the impact in Palm Beach county if they were not there?” she said.
“What’s the impact if more of us walk along side of them, work with them or learn from them? What excites me is how much we will learn from ministries like them. We have to open our eyes to educate ourselves on the food insecurities in our own communities and our state. We are a conference that is passionate about serving our communities and this is another way we will be able to.”
After consulting with food banks and other agencies, the task force settled on a formula to determine the program’s impact. A meal is equal to 1.2 pounds of food or a $2 donation.
Some churches provide grocery store gift cards and those will count as well.
Cooperation with organizations like the Trinity Café in Tampa also is a vital part of the outreach. Trinity serves the city’s homeless community and uses volunteers from various churches, including United Methodists, as servers and other helpers. Service at Trinity and others like it will count toward the overall goal.
“Part of Bishop Carter’s reason for doing this is to get a laser-like focus on a particular issue,” Campbell-Evans said.
“He used a phrase that was very helpful. He said, ‘I’d really like for a thousand flowers to bloom.’ That means everyone will do it differently. Some will want hands-on on their property. Some will want to hand out grocery store gift cards. Some will hand out backpacks. It’s all about helping others.”
The experience Campbell-Evans had in one of his first ministry assignments stuck with him and has been a motivating factor in trying to help now. He was working as an urban minister for Miami when a woman named Martha Gardner asked him to visit a children’s summer ministry she operated.
The church was in an area of Opa-Locka called the Triangle, a desperate place noted for its violence and drug problems. Police had established street barriers so people would have to drive slowly.
When Campbell-Evans stopped his car, a young man appeared and approached. He didn’t say a word, but he sniffed several times.
“It took me a while to understand,” Campbell-Evans said. “I said no, no, I’m looking for the United Methodist church. He didn’t say a word. He just nodded in the direction I should go.”
At the church, there were bars on every window. About 20 or 25 children sat on the floor. They had paper bags with their names written on them. Their lunch was inside, and they had one with Clarke’s name too. He sat on the floor with them and shared a meal and listened to their stories.
“To have a little outpost of God’s reign and sharing the abundant life of Jesus with these kids was incredibly impactful,” he said.
The food, which in some cases might be the only meal that kids would have that day, was provided through donations from four local churches. Each church had a red pail set up for people to empty the coins from their pockets.
“I can still hear the cacophony of coins hitting the pail,” Campbell-Evans said.
A modest amount of money turned into a contemporary version of the biblical story about loaves and fishes.
That’s what can happen with “Fill the Table.” Volunteers offering a little time can make a life-changing difference to those most in need.
"In reality, we are not re-inventing the wheel. We have very gifted and compassionate leaders across our state, in urban and rural communities, who are already deeply involved in responding to hunger,” Bishop Carter said.
“A part of what Fill the Table is about is connecting us and amplifying voices that cry out for persons experiencing hunger. The table is about hunger for food and the renewal of the church. Jesus meets us in the breaking of the bread."