Churches are finding that some of the most meaningful mission projects are right outside of their front doors. Elsberry UMC wanted to do a better job of engaging its local community in mission. In considering the needs of the community, they learned from members of the mission committee who are employed at the local school that about 60 percent of the students receive free or reduced price lunches. Some of the children were getting most of their food through school, and were hungry when not in school.
“We felt we had an opportunity to do something meaningful for children’s nutrition, and have a chance to teach them about Jesus and what goes on in church,” said Tom Seeger, a volunteer at the church.
The church started offering breakfast the Sunday after Easter, and sent the children home with a sack lunch. About a dozen children were present the first Sunday, and it continued to grow to about 30. Volunteers go out in groups of two and visit with parents about their children attending the program, and then come and pick the children up each week if they want to participate. The community has appreciated the service, and it’s grown by word of mouth. So far more than 80 individual children have participated.
“One of our volunteers was taking a couple kids home one day, and a neighbor came out and said she saw the kids getting picked up each week, and wondered if her children could come to,” said Rev. Paul Garven.
The children get breakfast as soon as they arrive at the church, than have time for children’s church, and get sent home with a sack lunch.
Early in the program, Garven asked the mission committee what the stop date should be for them to take a break from the program and re-evaluate it.
“They just looked at me, and then said, ‘I don’t think we need a stop date,’” he said.
Garven used to be the first one at the church on Sunday morning, arriving at about 8 a.m. and turning on the heat or air conditioning and preparing for worship.
“Now when I get to church there are already five people in the kitchen making breakfast, and another two packing lunches,” he said.
The program began with $600 set aside from the mission fund. It costs the church about $300 per month. When the money started to run out, Garven announced that they could feed a child for $3, support the program for a week for $75, or support it for a month for $300.
“I then received about $3,000 in donations, more than enough to finish the year,” he said. “That’s from a church with a total annual budget of $120,000.”
Attendance at the church in the past six weeks has been more than 100. The church used to average 75. The increase comes from people who are more excited about the church due to the good work it’s doing, and people who have benefitted from the work.
“We’ve had a couple families who have started walking with their kids to come to church on Sunday morning,” Garven said.
The church is also engaging the community in other ways. It recently purchased the former lumberyard that is next door to turn it into a park with an outdoor pavilion, and is rehabilitating a 100-year old building on the property to be used as a community center for things like GED classes and Alcoholics Anonymous programs.
Seeger said the breakfast program is a great benefit for the children, and for the volunteers who served.
“One child came up to me and said, ‘I have a present for you’,” Seeger said. “He gave me two mints. It was like the story of the widow’s offering in the Bible. It just blew me away.”
Seeger sees children from broken homes who are lacking in direction and attention from adults.
“It’s difficult to watch,” he said.
Volunteers went to homes in groups of two, and made sure parents and guardians were comfortable with what they were doing. Most of the food preparation was done by Sunday school teachers.
“It has been a unifying, joyful thing for the church,” Seeger said. “As long as we have one kid, we’ll do it every Sunday.”