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.
Now is a time of staying home, staying safe. But for churches, part of our work is caring for our community. Our purpose is wrapped up in those we serve. I just wrote the book on relational food ministries (“Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers: Growing a Relational Food Ministry”), so I know social distancing is painful. I am learning a great deal as I lead workshops on adapting food ministries during the pandemic. Yet for me, for the churches I serve, our purpose is still finding ways to feed people who are hungry. We cannot stop now as we see the huge increases in the number of people who are hungry, unemployed and afraid.
I’ve asked churches how they have adapted to keep feeding people during the pandemic. First, they identify who they are serving. People who are food insecure and people who don’t have homes have different needs.
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“I see desperation in people’s eyes as they say to me ‘I have no food’”. A pastor was sharing their frustration working with people who live on the streets.
As churches struggle to figure out how to get their worship online, how to sterilize hard surfaces, and how to check on elders in nursing homes that don’t allow visitors, people outside our circles are hungry. Of course that has always been true. And churches have always been there to meet the needs of those who are hungry. Sixty-two percent of meals and pantries in the United States are faith-based.
When I surveyed people who are food insecure throughout the United States, asking questions about the ministries they are part of, but also whether they “need” the food at the program where they volunteer, more than one person replied “anyone who can’t find food in this town is lazy”. Because every big city has many churches providing food, and most small towns have at least one church providing food. In the cities I visited, people who are hungry can choose between one food ministry and another.
Except now that has changed. In the effort to figure out how to be physically distant from one another, many food programs have been suspended. In the effort to enforce safety for the whole, some health departments have closed down meals and pantries that reach more than 25 people. In the effort to keep us all healthy, some people are starving.
So what is a church to do?
In the earliest centuries of Christianity, when faced with the plague, Christians stood out from their neighbors because they risked their lives to care for the sick and the poor. The witness of calm and loving attention to those suffering is likely to be one of the reasons for the quick growth of this small, unheard of religion at those times. There is more about this here https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/what-early-church-teach-coronavirus/.
Choosing to continue to care for the hungry in this time does not require giving up all wisdom around cover-19. Churches are balancing the risks of the virus with the risks of hunger and coming up with ways to keep their feeding ministries open.
Many meals have taken the lead from restaurants and are offering lunch or dinner (and in one place breakfast) to go. Using clam shell carry-out containers one cook fills the container and leaves it on a table, one server carries the food to the doorway, one volunteer coordinates it so only one person comes forward to pick up their meal. Several places are switching from hot food to sandwiches, the sandwiches are made by families in their homes, collected from doorsteps by a driver, and then delivered outside the church.
One huge meal program I interviewed earlier has divided their meal into three spaces, so that it is now three meals of 25 people instead of one large gathering. “The rest of the building isn’t being used right now” the pastor explained to me. Some church meal programs are officially closed, but volunteers hand out sandwiches at the doorway as people are sent away. “We are trying to stay under the radar” the pastor explained. Another church program chose to stay open, and invites limited numbers in to find chairs set up in trios six feet away from each other. Each person who comes in gets lunch and three chairs for themselves and their belongings. There is room for 25, new diners wait outside until someone has left.
The weather has been good so far for churches that have moved their food pantries outside, or who are keeping the line for the pantry outside. If you’ve had a pantry where people can “shop” for what they need you may want to change to a bagged system—either put together a bag with some of everything, or provide a list and people can circle the items they want. Volunteers then fill a bag for the person in need of groceries. This way most of the volunteers are able to keep a six foot separation from each other and from the food recipients.
Volunteers may be nervous about coming to our food ministries, so efficiencies are necessary to do ministry with fewer people. It is also helpful to have tasks people can do individually—making meals at home, bagging or sorting alone, handing out food across a table. My own church has moved to “no touching” check in for the pantry—we’ve eliminated signatures and sorting through the bags, people are simply checked off as they come in, we share stories but not handshakes or hugs. We have two people organize the pantry—the space is huge so they are more than six feet apart. We also ask volunteers to shop for us.
One program I talked to has two week shifts for volunteers and staff—two weeks on, and then two weeks off for everyone involved. This allows for a rest from the stress of maintaining appropriate physical distancing, and a chance to attend to maintaining their own health. Their goal is to find a way to be able to keep up the work of feeding one another for the long haul—which means everyone involved will need a time of rest.
The challenge is to maintain as much physical distancing as possible, while still providing food for those who are hungry. The challenge is maintaining our integrity of what it means to be a Christian in this time of great risk. The challenge is to care for all of our neighbors in this time of need.
I’m interested to hear what your community is doing with this challenge.
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.