The neighborhood lunch program at Trinity United Methodist Church in Arcadia is more than a delicious meal served on real china.
The program, which operates Mondays and Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., is church members and volunteers in action to meet community needs.
The Rev. Jim Wade, senior pastor at the church, said the ministry is simple — any person can receive a free, full sit-down meal. He said it began in January 2009 and since then, the church has fed more than 23,000 people.
The vision of the ministry is to offer a hot meal to anyone who is hungry, either physically or spiritually. It is open to everyone, regardless of social or economic status, age, or the neighborhood in which someone lives.
The lunch also includes time for devotions, scripture reading and prayer.
Wade said many Arcadia residents are plagued by extreme unemployment and the idea of a free neighborhood lunch appeals to both the community that needs it and the church that wants to provide it.
“We have about 25 to 35 people who volunteer four or sometimes eight hours each week to operate the program,” Wade said. “Some are church members, some are court-appointed volunteers who continue to come back and volunteer after their time is up. Some volunteers I see more than church members who I see only during worship. And sometimes the volunteers start coming to church, and the next thing I know, they are coming down the aisle to join church.”
That’s a long way from the first meal served Jan. 5, 2009, when only 12 people showed up to eat enough food for 80 people.
Church member Susan Laubhan was nervous that first day, but said she never waivered from her original idea to start the neighborhood lunch ministry.
Laubhan was in a church meeting when people started discussing appropriate ways to utilize the newly upgraded church kitchen, which was then certified by law as an institutional kitchen, the same kind used in hospitals, prisons and schools (the law has since changed and no longer requires the church to obtain the certification to be operational). She said an idea to offer a community meal once a week was tossed around.
Laubhan went home and prayed about that possibility and then shared it with Wade, who did the same before the idea was implemented.
After the first meal, attendance doubled each week, and an additional day had to be added.
“This is pretty amazing,” Loubhan said. “It is a God thing; that’s all I can say.”
There are people to serve and people to receive the meal, but the money to operate the ministry must also be there. And although the cost of each meal is only about $1.25 per person, the expenses are compounded when 250 to 300 people are being fed on a weekly basis.
“The only thing I can say is that we rely on the Lord,” Wade said. “We have received some grants and gifts, but it’s really been the Lord. He has provided.”
The church has developed a unique relationship with its local Sweetbay Supermarket, which in 2009 donated $40,000 in baked goods and meats to the church.
“They’re like our extended church family,” Wade said. “They take good care of us, and we take good care of them.”
Wade said the people, volunteers and money have always been there to make the ministry a reality.
“This is outreach,” Wade said. “It’s real work. We are putting our faith into action. You can’t have one without the other — it’s all interwoven.”
Loubhan, who volunteers 11 hours each week for the ministry, said she has stopped worrying about “having enough volunteers or if people would show up.” She said she also doesn’t worry the ministry’s finances being met.
“God is paying attention,” Loubhan said. “He makes it happen. It’s my job to show up.”
People in the community are paying attention, too, and want to be part of it.
As of Dec. 13, the church added 38 new members to its rolls, which already totaled more than 250 people. And in 2009, the church was among those in the Florida Conference experiencing the greatest percentage increase in professions of faith and most increased average worship attendance. Twenty-five people professed their faith in 2009, compared to eight in 2008 — a 213 percent increase. And average weekly worship attendance increased from 178 in 2008 to 229 in 2009.
Because of that growth, the church was one of three recognized in 2010 by the Florida Conference Congregational Excellence ministry for its efforts to transform itself and its community.
Wade said the numbers represent people who see what the church is doing not for itself, but for the community.
“The people who are joining are not the people we are serving, but the people who are volunteering. They see a cause and effect,” Wade said. “We are living out the Great Commission, and they want to be part of that mission.”
And Wade says there is no reason why other churches couldn’t open up their own kitchens to serve a community meal.
Feeding the hungry, he said, is fulfilling one of the most basic needs of survival.
“I think we are practicing our faith in word and deed,” Wade said. “You can’t have one without the other. They are interwoven.”
News media contact: Gretchen Hastings, 800-282-8011, firstname.lastname@example.org, Lakeland
*Hastings is executive editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a freelance writer based in Seffner, Fla.