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Korean church kicks drive-thru food pantry into high gear during COVID-19

Korean church kicks drive-thru food pantry into high gear during COVID-19

COVID-19 Missions and Outreach

It was a long-held dream for members of Korean United Methodist Church of South Florida to open a food pantry on the church’s new campus in Tamarac.

Serving as a feeding site for low-income families was a way the church could give back to its community. That was one of its stated missions when it received a $5 million Development Fund loan from the Florida United Methodist Foundation a few years ago. The loan was for a three-phased project that included buying and moving to a new property, building a 12,850-foot sanctuary and renovating an existing building for a fellowship hall and education center.

After moving into the new worship center in October 2018, members were anxious to get the pantry underway. First, though, they had to wait for Feeding South Florida to approve the church as a partner. The process took longer than anticipated, but in January, their patience was rewarded.

In the first two months, church volunteers gave out boxes of donated food every Saturday to an average of 100 to 120 clients, who had registered ID cards that had to be scanned to determine how many family members were in the household and how many pounds of goods they would receive.

Korean UMC spent $100 on the food processing fees and $100 on delivery costs through the partnership program with the nonprofit.

Then COVID-19 changed everything.

“It just exploded,” church deaconess and volunteer Kim Lee said. “We had a system in place that was very organized. Then we had new rules to follow and a demand we never could have imagined.” 

Volunteers at the Korean UMC of South Florida prepare to distribute food at their drive-thru food pantry held every Saturday morning. --FUMF photo/KUMCSF

For starters, safety guidelines required the distribution to be a drive-through operation, with clients remaining in their cars to prevent physical contact. Volunteers are required to wear face masks and gloves.

That was the easy part. The increase in clients was unexpected and almost overwhelming.

“One week we had 320 cars coming through, the next week it was 540,” Lee said. “They say God doesn’t give you what you can’t handle. I’m so grateful we can be servants at a time when people need help more than ever.”

Traffic became so snarled that the Broward County sheriff’s department sent additional cruisers to redirect the flow to the street behind the church.

With the situation so dire, Feeding South Florida waived the partner fees and the accounting requirements. Now, each car is given 30 pounds of donated food — which includes meat, dried goods, fresh fruits and vegetables, and bakery items — no matter how many people are in the household.

On a recent Saturday, Korean UMC got a delivery of 16,000 pounds of food — which required additional church members to organize. Because of current health concerns, the food pantry’s older volunteers can’t serve, but younger members and families have answered the call. The city mayor and other politicians have also joined congregants in the distribution lines.

“I’m very proud of this congregation,” said Chris Goo, director of the church’s education department and chairperson of the staff-parish relations committee. “When we lost our seniors, we lost about two-thirds of our pantry volunteers. But then our other members took their place. Now it’s a family activity, with parents coming with their kids to help. It’s become very meaningful and teaching a good life lesson about community service.”

The hours have escalated as well.

Volunteers load food into trunks as cars line up. -- FUMF photo/KUMCSF

Though Feeding South Florida doesn’t deliver the food until about 7 a.m., cars start lining up as early as 5 a.m. That meant another change in how the church responded to the pandemic.

The live streaming prayer service runs at 6 a.m., so members and guests can get a spiritual boost to start the day. After the 7 a.m. food delivery, some three dozen volunteers line up at their tables and begin distribution as soon as possible.

“We used to start around 9:30 and wrap up around 11 or so,” Goo said. “Now it’s nonstop between 8 a.m. to around noon.”

Korean UMC, founded 39 years ago by 30 members, now draws an average attendance of about 300 to its English- and Korean-speaking services. It is one of five United Methodist churches serving Koreans in Florida.

For years, the congregation met in a single building with seating capacity of 200. An influx of first- and second-generation Koreans meant it had outgrown its home. The church had a problem most congregations envy: it was steadily growing, and in particular, drawing families with young children.

It took a giant leap of faith to leave a debt-free building and relocate to a property just 10 minutes away. Even with its attractive interest rate, taking on the Development Fund loan meant a major financial commitment to church members.

“To keep pace with our growth, we really had no choice but to expand. Still, it means being very optimistic about the future,” Goo said. “But working with the foundation really put us at ease.”

The church was on track to complete the third phase of its ambitious project with the renovation of the existing building, which will have kitchen facilities, classrooms and a fellowship hall. But the coronavirus stalled construction in South Florida, and the late spring deadline is no longer feasible. It may be summer before the renovations are complete.

That didn’t stop the congregation from staying the course with the food pantry ministry.

“We are very impressed with them going forward like that,” said Andy Craske, vice president of loans and investments for the foundation. “Even though their physical operation isn’t fully operational yet, they still had the heart and the commitment to carry out their spiritual mission. They could have waited until it was more convenient, but they felt the time had come. And now look at the incredible service they’re providing to hurting people.”

Making loans to churches that need funds to expand their ministry beyond the four walls aligns with the United Methodist mission of putting Christ’s love into action in local communities and beyond. The Korean UMC is also setting an example that Craske hopes will be followed by other Florida Conference churches.

“The members are proving the church is really the people. It isn’t about the buildings,” he said. “When we finally get on the other side of this (pandemic), I’m hoping there’s a renewed understanding that we can accomplish so much, even in the absence of in-person worship services, classes and Bible studies.”

Goo says any initial hesitation some members may have had about taking out a loan so they could expand their physical space is long gone. The food pantry alone is proof that the church’s reach now has a more substantial impact. In its former home, this operation would not be possible.

Also, churches across the conference have learned a valuable lesson since the onset of COVID-19. The need to be creative in difficult times is now the “new normal,” Goo said.

“You figure out how to make things work,” he said. “We did what we were supposed to do. We listened to God. It was his plan to use us in this way. He gave us a little time to prepare, and then we made it work when the unexpected happened.”

--Michelle Bearden is a freelance writer in Tampa

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