'Feed my sheep' with 16 gallons of soup, sandwiches




Imagine yourself in one of these situations: You’re a senior on a fixed income with little left over; a single mom with kids who are bottomless pits at mealtime, or you’ve been struggling for weeks to find a job with no luck.

Wouldn’t it be great if you knew that a home-cooked meal served by friendly folks in a welcoming space was available every Saturday morning of the month? Well, it is in Clay County near Jacksonville.

Churches take turns cooking and filling plates with food every Saturday. Coordinated by Middleburg UMC's Craig Van Gundy, the Kitchen of Clay County serves 12 to 16 gallons of homemade soup, sandwiches and cakes for those in need.

At the Kitchen of Clay County, volunteers from three different church denominations offer lunch every Saturday. Guests who come for soup, a sandwich and cake get something else just as important as food. They get respect and care.

Back in 2009, some churches banded together to bring this idea to life, and it’s been going strong ever since. Volunteers come from CrossRoad Lutheran Church, St. Luke’s Catholic Church and Middleburg United Methodist Church

Middleburg’s Craig Van Gundy is the overall coordinator, keeping up with supplies and individual church coordinators. He said volunteers are so great that the program basically keeps going on its own. Churches that take turns working a rotating schedule may overlap to make sure all the Saturdays, even some fifth Saturdays of the month, are covered. 

And new churches are always being recruited.

The formula for the program’s success seems simple enough, similar to what Jesus asked his followers to do in John 21: “Feed my sheep.”

“We’re not trying to get (new members of the churches). We’re just there to share Christ’s love,” said Van Gundy, who is also a member of the Kitchen of Clay County board, formerly the Soup Kitchen of Clay County and now officially a 501c3 nonprofit.

Typically, about 12 volunteers are needed each Saturday, bringing with them 12 to 16 gallons of homemade soup and 3 pounds each of turkey, ham and cheese for sandwiches. Middleburg UMC’s nearby food pantry, called ”The Food Bridge,” supplies bread, dessert and fruits, and the Kitchen’s board supplies drinks, silverware and condiments.

Guests start lining up each week around 9:45 a.m. Lunch is served at 11. While guests wait, volunteers often play guitars. Others sing familiar hymns, according to Loretta Webster, also a Middleburg member. Tables in the dining room are rearranged for service, not cafeteria style.

The clientele includes seniors and varies from regulars to new people. At least one large family of eight is said to treat their Saturday lunch the way many families enjoy a weekly meal at a restaurant. Guests often learn about the lunches when they pick up food at the local food pantry nearby or through word-of-mouth.

About 50 to 60 guests attend each Saturday. Sometimes there are as many as 80 to 90. Many go home with takeout containers with another meal for themselves or for a friend, Van Gundy said. Guests claim their regular seats and comments about “how good the food is” are a regular thing, too.

While guests start lining up for a hot meal, one volunteer described an atmosphere with guitar music, hymns and fellowship. The Saturday morning event began in 2009.

“We’re there to listen to them and build a relationship of trust. It takes time, maybe 25 meals, before they know you’re real,” he said.

Three dedicated volunteer church coordinators are vocal about the importance of this ministry to the people they serve, to the churches represented and to the volunteers joining the weekend effort.

Deserae Smith, her daughter Zoe and husband Matthew visited CrossRoad six years ago, learned about the kitchen mission and volunteered the next Saturday. They’ve been going ever since.

“You never know what anyone’s walk in life is. Things can change on a dime, so you’d better not take anything for granted,” said Deserae. Her daughter, now 15, caught the serving bug, along with some of her Girl Scout friends.

”My favorite part is sitting down with the folks who come,” Deserae said. There are people I look forward to seeing; and if I don’t, it’s usually for health reasons. But I can check on them with the other church volunteers.”

Loretta Webster of Middleburg loves the ministry so much that she has only missed two Saturday shifts in eight years. She pointed to the challenge of planning the amount of food needed, even though there are no reservations, and never having come up short.

“There’s always enough soup and enough volunteers. God works it out,” she said.

Besides devotions, prayers with those attending and thanksgiving before lunch, volunteers pray for each other before the guests arrive. “We pray that we can be kind to them and ask God to help us show the love of Christ. There are so many ways we can help,” she said.

Sherri Dominger, St. Luke’s Catholic Church, is a relative newcomer to this ministry, serving the second Saturday since the beginning of 2017. She said that the work makes her feel so good that she would come every Saturday if she could.

She has also brought Girl Scouts along and other young people, who can take orders, set tables and serve sandwiches.

“This ministry offers a good perspective on being able to appreciate your blessings,” she said.

--Anne Dukes is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.


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