Ashburnham, Massachusetts is a rural town, full of lakes, summer camps, families. Main Street features two pizza shops, a hairdresser, sushi, town hall, a bank, a local grocer, a store selling crafts and art, a place for bagels, hardware, liquor. The tavern entrance and barbershop are on Central. The steeple of Ashburnham Community Church is lit at night, a beacon on the edge of our two-block downtown.
This small congregation has struggled to keep its footing. Those coming to worship are aging but not old, a few children, a tiny choir, the attendance dropping slowly, the income not enough to pay the bills. I started here as pastor right after beloved Pastor Chuck died suddenly. We have much in common—a love of small town life, an informal style, a quick laugh at meetings. We have much work to do, figuring how, and if, we can make it as twenty-first century church.
This church’s ministry is food: a community meal six times a year, delivering dinner to a Fitchburg shelter monthly, and a food pantry where we share food and conversation with 24 local families. My ministry is food. I accepted a part-time call to finish writing Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers: Growing a Relational Food Ministry (Upper Room Books) and to promote it. We’ve learned to work well together, this church and me, figuring out how to have hard conversations, imagining how to do church differently, getting out into our community, making connections with our town.
Like churches everywhere, our first response to COVID-19 was to clean everything really well, wash our hands, elbow our greetings, and to laugh nervously about staying away. Once it was time to move online our first worship had 8 people, then 10, then most weeks 14; pretty good for 30 people with little or no technological expertise. But church is not meant to be about us; church is who we are in our community. To be a light in the darkness we need to ask “what about our neighbors?”
When the sheep and goats of Matthew 25:31-46 ask the question “when did we see you hungry?” both are surprised to discover that they did, or did not, feed Jesus. With no small amount of discussion, Ashburnham Community Church decided that now is the time we are called to see Jesus in those who are hungry, and to respond with food. This is how we will brighten our neighborhood. With everything else in the building shut down, we decided the food pantry would remain open.
Brenda, our pantry director, called all of the families on our list, making sure they knew that we are open, asking that they keep six-foot distances, come in one at a time, let others know that food is available. It was only a few days later that calls started coming in from people who had been laid off. Brenda packed an emergency bag of groceries for one family; the next day there were two more requests. Then the senior center closed, suspending their weekday lunch. A couple people called to ask if they could donate food, money, or time to the pantry.
In online meetings, in kitchens, over the phone, churches grapple with how to be safe with food ministries. Pastors of street churches report enough programs have closed that people without homes are hungry and afraid. I listen through the phone as a woman explains she was laid off; she starts to cry as she asks for food for her granddaughter. A neighbor calls asking for a way to get food to the man next door, alone. I hear of a meal switching to sandwiches to-go, and a pantry moving their distribution outdoors.
Volunteers are afraid of getting sick, and of infecting others. People in need are also cautious of illness, while more immediately anxious about hunger. The message “do not be afraid” appears 21 times in the New Testament. Brenda, our food pantry director, is not interested in theological analysis. “We just have to figure out how to do this as safely as possible,” she tells me. “That’s what we do at this church, we take care of our neighbors.”
So the pantry is now open three mornings a week. Ashburnham and Ashby residents are welcome without eligibility tests. We’ve moved the distribution table to the front door, right under the steeple. We wear gloves and masks, and set the food bags on the table so people can pick-up without touching another person. People wait their turn in cars, or stand on the front lawn, six feet apart. Many wear masks. Volunteers work alone, stacking cans and bags of rice on cupboard shelves. Another fills bags with non-perishable foods. Another accesses the church voicemail remotely so we don’t miss anyone.
It’s hard to say what will happen to the light from Ashburnham Community Church. We’ve lost income from renters, and we worship online. But we haven’t lost our faith that Jesus is there in the people of our town. For now, we live out the good news that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.
You call your ministry “outdoor church” rather than a food service ministry. What is the difference?
The term “outdoor church” literally described the church I pastored for years in Worcester, Massachusetts. We didn’t have a building. But more generally it describes the coming together of people you usually find inside a church with people who live outdoors, the homeless and food insecure. In Worcester, on Sundays we “indoor church” people provided a meal, a Bible study, and a worship service outside. We also held other programs outside during the week. In that church, our program developed to where those who need food became the volunteers for the pantry and meals. In the model I describe in the book, people get to know those who need food by serving and eating with them and invite them into leadership of their programs.
Click here for the rest of my interview on the Collegeville website.
Upper Room Books has done a series of videos on how people find hope in this time of coronavirus. Honestly at first I didn't find hope. But the my congregation rose up to do great work at our Food Pantry. I find God in the people who do this work, and the people who donate, and the people who come to get food. Here is the video that I offered to Upper Room: Link.
For my organized thoughts, see my book Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers: Developing Relational Food Ministries. In this spot are thoughts that appear for a moment--about food programs, mission, church, building community, writing, and whatever else pops into my head.