Elizabeth Mae Magill is pastor of Ashburnham Community Church, UCC/UMC, in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, which recently celebrated its 250th anniversary. In her new book, Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers: Growing a Relational Food Ministry, Pastor Liz describes her ongoing work to form new models for offering food insecure people in our community meals and provisions. Susan Sink talked to her Liz in mid-March, at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, about her model and what people are doing now to continue community food ministries.
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.
Highly effective food ministries create deep relationships between people with lots of food and those with hardly any food and the relationship grows into what I would call “church.” The meals and the services are church gatherings where we share faith with each other.
In the introduction to the book, you write about a man named Alan and the difference he made at the Worcester Fellowship outdoor church. Can you tell me about his impact on you?
Alan was a local man who came to the lunches during the early days of a chaotic attempt to incorporate outdoor parishioners into our lunch service. At first, he mostly complained. He told us we were “doing it wrong,” and expressed some common sentiments like the people were “taking advantage of us” by not staying for worship. I pointed out that he wasn’t staying for worship either; it wasn’t about that.
It turned out Alan was better at managing the food distribution than anyone else.
Finally, one Sunday he just inserted himself in the situation and started using his organizational skills and what he had observed of the community to participate. He started pulling out sandwiches, reserving two of each kind, for those who arrived after church. He reorganized the line and had someone hand out plastic bags so people could collect their food and the socks we were distributing. It turned out he was better at managing the food distribution than anyone else. He knew what we needed and he knew what individuals needed.
What are three ways this model of “outdoor church” is different from the traditional model of direct food charities?
First, the ministry starts with the people who need the food, not people who have the food. The indoor church people approach it this way: “I’d like to meet the people who don’t have enough food and ask what they need.”
Second, don’t try to be efficient. This is so hard for food ministries. We try to create work for everyone who wants to volunteer. The principle is this: “Including everyone is more important than being as efficient as possible.”
Third, the relationships in this kind of ministry are not just casual. The relationships are where this becomes church. People get to know each other deeply. Food programs are run by very loving people and traditionally they do get to know fellow volunteers within the church but not always the people who are being served. When you use this shared ministry model instead, the level of knowing each other gets deeper. It’s not unusual that people who are food insecure help those who are food secure or check in with them. The loving of the neighbor goes both ways.
There is love and caring in all the models, including the traditional, but we can go to the next level and create belonging in this model.
What has surprised you?
Sometimes at a food pantry I can’t tell who is food secure and food insecure.
Sometimes at a food pantry I can’t tell who is food secure and food insecure. At the meal before a pantry started, seeing everyone working together, I often can’t tell people apart.
For example, at one pantry there was a guy whose job was breaking down boxes. He didn’t say much and he had a kind of rough appearance. I asked about his story and learned he was not homeless but a high school teacher! He liked to do something that kept him separate from all the people given his high level of social interaction in his job.
What kinds of things have you learned?
You learn a lot about individual communities and their cultures when you ask people what they want and let them lead, rather than assuming. For example, one community in Massachusetts only wanted white bread and no heels used for sandwiches. I passed along this information to the group in Worcester, but then they complained when the bread changed from whole grain to white bread–they felt whole grain was healthier! Again, it might seem obvious, but food insecure communities are not monolithic. We’re just so used to second guessing or thinking we know what is best.
The third part of your book is called “Create Church,” where you claim that “eating together is church.” Would you like to elaborate?
In my dissertation work where I visited food programs at churches, I found communities that offered food and offered worship without distinction. The food wasn’t what was important, it was the gathering together. Some people had their food needs met, some their spiritual needs, some came for the companionship of sharing a meal or worship or both. Just like the inside church and outside church were inseparable, so were the meal and the worship.
Food insecure people can be people of great faith. The worship service isn’t a way to convert them to a set of beliefs. We’re participating in it together. While their faith doesn’t always end addictions, mental health challenges, or poverty, it does support them in their struggles. To not recognize that faith journey is to fail to proclaim the good news that Jesus walks with us in our hard times. This is true evangelism and shared ministry.
How has Covid-19 changed the ministry you run in the near term?
Massachusetts has prohibited gatherings of more than 10 people. We’re maintaining six feet of physical distancing. At my current congregation, we serve food and have an indoor church that has a food pantry. I’m still fairly new to the church, having arrived in November 2018. We want to keep the food pantry open, so we moved it from deep inside the church to an entrance hallway. People step into the hallway one at a time. Instead of picking up bags and saying what food they want, each person can grab a bag that has been prepared and placed on the table. This allows us to have no physical contact. One person outside keeps the physical distancing in the line.
Our pantry has gone from once a month to three times per week because of increased need.
Also, our pantry has gone from once a month to three times per week because of increased need and also in order to have fewer people at each distribution time.
Do you have enough donations for the current need?
We’ve been overwhelmed with huge donations of food, decent amounts of money, and many more recipients. We were serving 24 regular households before and have started serving an additional 10 families in the last eight days. We had good food storage set up already thanks to funding from local organizations and other churches in our small town.
What is the best way for people to support food ministries right now?
First, encourage them to stay open! Find a way to provide food as safely as possible, but don’t stop your program. The number of people who need help with food resources is increasing. If you are healthy see if you can help by cooking in your home, making sandwiches, or by shopping. Some meals are having people eat in shifts of 10 people at a time, with seats set up to keep six foot distances. Others are providing carry-out just like the restaurants.
If you feel especially at risk, consider volunteering to drive food to people’s homes (leave it on the doorstep), or to write uplifting notes to be delivered in lunch bags, so that you are not in contact with additional people. Perhaps your food ministry needs someone to make phone calls, or to keep their social media information up to date. One of the street churches in my area is looking for volunteers to make cloth masks for people who don’t have homes.
Pastor Liz will be hosting a Zoom call to present on food ministries in the time of Covid-19 on Friday, April 3, from noon-1 p.m. EST. For more information on how to join, click here.