Shared ministry is a great thing. Many people want to help serve food, cook food, distribute food. When people who are food secure and people who food insecure work together, relationships are built. With a little planning your food ministry can create church.
And some things won’t work along the way. People volunteer who can’t do what they volunteered to do. You will miss deadlines, fill out forms incorrectly, and not get some grants. You will run out of food and throw away excess food, sometimes at the same meal.
Sometimes the failure is small. I volunteered at a church where a volunteer could not stop reprimanding the others coming through the line. It took far too long for one of the organizers to notice and move him to another task.
At another food pantry I handed out restaurant style bags of creamy Italian salad dressing to shoppers for 2 hours before someone came by and told me it was actually white gravy.
At a meal program I visited one of the “volunteers” helped out just long enough to steal a huge case of chicken breasts.
Sometimes failure is devastating. After my book came out one of the leaders at a meal program went back to drinking. It took months of re-negotiating boundaries, trying to offer help, and running their program without all the volunteers needed before they faced the reality that church had to let them go. Besides the huge struggle to provide dinner weekly, so many relationships were broken.
Volunteers struggle when their mental health takes a turn for the worse. One person might stop taking their medications, another might find their medications less effective. Of course everyone get sicks sometimes. They get housing and jobs—obviously great for the volunteer, but then the ministry needs to be re-organized.
Or their might be a pandemic! (That’s the subject of another blog.)
Friday I was excited to visit Cafe Esperanza at Hope Lutheran Church in Reading. As readers of Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers know, Hope already has both a meal and a pantry. Now they are converting a house across the street into a “pay as you can” cafe.
The idea is brilliant! Eaters can donate the value of their meal, or more than the value of their meal, or they can take on a volunteer task and eat for free. The goal is nutritious, interesting food choices that meet the needs of people with food allergies and preferences.
And the food was amazing! A chicken curry made with local vegetables. Baked peach granola that was gluten and dairy free. There will always be vegan options. One of the volunteers was volunteering specifically to get access to food they cannot afford, food that meets their dietary needs.
Friday was their soft opening. Except it didn’t happen. Their cook found a job with higher pay just last week.
So the word went out that they were not yet open. Volunteers gathered at the cafe to fix a few things, to work on the wall-artwork, and to commiserate with the director. The board will meet Monday to figure out next steps.
The mood slipped around—a moment of despair followed by ideas for the future, a bit of hope, a vigorous round of problem solving, and then another bit of sadness. People described the tension of not knowing what is next.
Cafe Esperanza is going to open. Some day they’ll tell the story of this failure and it’ll seem like it was a blip in the path. The Holy Spirit knows how to create something new out of chaos and despair.
But today it just feels hard.
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.