Ministry Imagination Grants: Imagine. Innovate. Initiate.
By Dennis Sanders
Pastor and chef Jose Flores chopped vegetables while talking to the small class gathered at Our Father’s Lutheran Church in Rockford. The crowd watched as he prepared what the audience would soon eat for lunch. He keeps chopping as he utters, “The most amazing conversations happen in the kitchen.”
Where there is food, there is conversation. Some of the most memorable stories in the gospels have Jesus talking to someone during a dinner or when food is being prepared. Food brings people together.
“Where there is food, there is conversation. Food brings people together.”
Since July 2018, Our Father’s has ministered to their surrounding community through food. Two days a month, Nourishing HOPE (Helping Other People Everyday) provides fresh food and conversation for families and seniors. Nourishing HOPE is comprised of two programs: a “food drop” which takes place on the second Tuesday of the month and a luncheon that takes place the next day. The Minneapolis Area Synod’s Ministry Imagination Grant program provided financial support for Our Father’s to purchase a commercial refrigerator in order to store the food they provide the community.
THE GENESIS OF Nourishing HOPE came about a year and a half ago when Our Father’s undertook a dedicated process to discern its future. “We started having what we call connect and activate sessions where we gathered as a congregation after services and just brainstormed about where we were going, where God was leading us, how we could be more active in the community, how we could serve better,” said Julie Vergin, a coordinator with Nourishing HOPE. Vergin learned about a consortium of churches in a nearby town that offered a monthly food drop, where food was delivered by Second Harvest to a local church to be distributed. The idea was brought back to Our Father’s and the congregation decided to give it a go.
But where would this ministry take place? Our Father’s member Mike Dickman remembers that the congregation was thinking about how best to do outreach, not noticing the resource that was right under their feet. “We are blessed with all these facilities and building,” he said. “We came to the conclusion as to say maybe we could do outreach, but have it take place within this asset [with which] God has blessed us.”
As part of their discernment, members of the congregation started to take a good look at their community to determine the needs. Vergin and the rest of the congregation noticed the elderly population that lived on a fixed income. “So you have seniors that don’t go too far. There’s no meeting center for them here. The closest things about 12 miles away,” she said.
VERGIN OBSERVED ANOTHER local population in need: low-income families. “You have young families or single parent families that are just insecure, earning minimum wage.”
The food drop supplements what families get from SNAP (formerly called Food Stamps) and the food shelf, allowing them to use the money designated for food for other needs.
The food drop is not simply giving people a bag of food. Instead, volunteers set up the fellowship hall like a small supermarket. The congregation borrows carts from a local dollar store for families to use as they navigate this “store.” “They have the ability to pick and choose what they want,” Vergin says. “So it fosters a little bit of autonomy too.”
The food drop along with the meal also gives participants access to fresh food, something that is sorely missing in Rockford. “There’s always food available, but is it the most healthy? No, because we don’t have a grocery store. We don’t have anywhere to get that fresh produce,” the Rev. Cathy Jones, co-pastor of Our Father’s, explains. “That’s where the synod’s imagination grant comes in. We want to address food scarcity, provide healthy food, and connect people through that food ministry. We can beef up the kitchen to provide hospitality and bring in rescue food and be able to refrigerate and freeze it for future use. I cannot tell you what a blessing it is getting that refrigerator.”
A Wednesday luncheon follows the food drop on the second Tuesday of each month. The luncheon draws in a variety of people and offers a social space in a community where there are few of those spaces. All of this excites Jones: “The moms with little ones, the senior citizens, some people on their lunch breaks. It’s just been really fun to see the diversity of groups that have come together.”
“So the food program is becoming a more community focus, which is what our dream was.”
The news of Nourishing HOPE has spread and brought more people into the program, not just to get needed fresh food, but to volunteer. “As this has grown, we have seen people who are not actually members of our church come to volunteer,” Dickman says. “So it is becoming a more community focus, which is what our dream was,” Vergin adds.
Dickman believes that the everyday acts of grace are a witness to people of God’s love. “We’re not necessarily trying to preach the gospel at people when they come in, and we cannot, but the fact of the matter is people realize we’re a church, we’re a Christian community. And even with nothing being said, it speaks volumes because of the action that we’re taking.” Before the meal each Wednesday, a prayer is offered. Through this, Jones is able to pray with and get to know the people in Rockford.
NOURISHING HOPE CONTINUES to grow. The food drops served about 30–40 people when the program began. According to Dickman, the latest food drop had 120 people take part. The class with Flores is a new component to help people learn to cook healthy food.
Nearby churches are noticing. Congregations in Albertville and Montrose have learned from Our Father’s and started similar ministries.
Even as the ministry grows, the cost to the church itself has been minimal. “We haven’t had to really use our church general operating to support this,” Dickman said. Grants like the Ministry Imagination Grant and outside donations have kept the ministry afloat. “The funny, curious God thing about this is when you start to put it together and say, ‘We’re going to apply to these grants, we’re going to see what we can do,’ suddenly, doors open and things are made available that you don’t even know,” Jones adds.
While the Ministry Imagination Grant paid for the commercial refrigerator, future plans include a commercial stove, a commercial dishwasher, and potentially a remodel.
When asked about how Nourishing HOPE has fed their faith, Dickman responded thoughtfully. “We have a thing here at church that has become a common part of the worship services. Where have you seen God at work? When you watch what happens in this ministry, you just see the hand of God.”
Flores said amazing conversations happen in the kitchen. Those conversations happen in Our Father’s kitchen and at the lunch table as well. Through the Ministry Imagination Grant, Our Father’s can continue to be a place where conversations happen, life is shared, and God is in the middle of it all.