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Orlando's St. Luke's UMC shows the art of reaching out and filling a need

Orlando's St. Luke's UMC shows the art of reaching out and filling a need

Most people probably think of Orlando as simply the home to iconic attractions such as Disney World, Sea World, and Universal Studios. Behind each of those brand names, though, are people.

They are artists, performers, technical workers, classical musicians, ballet dancers, and countless others who have dedicated their professional lives to perfecting their craft.

And when the COVID-19 catastrophe struck, and the theme parks and local theater groups closed, thousands of professionals found themselves without a job or income, and many faced a food shortage.

For Orlando’s St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, that situation struck literally close to home. Its campus is located near those shuttered attractions and the church has its own thriving theatre ministry. It counts many members of the local arts community among its members, which gives the congregation special insight to the plight of their artistic neighbors that others might not see.

“They are invisible,” St. Luke’s member and former Disney Entertainment executive RK Kelly said.

“It’s a total work disruption to one particular industry. Theatrical and concert performers are going to be slow to return. We are a major entertainment and arts center in the United States. Orlando has an enormous population of people who make their entire income on the arts, and after March, they had no income.”

It was a bugle charge to jump in and help.

So, the church partnered with Feed The Need Florida and the 4R Restaurant Group to provide meals for those in the Central Florida arts community who needed help. But, as we shall see, it was more than just another food handout.

The complicated collaboration came together in a few weeks after the church focused on the need.

“We have a reputation of being able to partner with other organizations and fill a need. We were asked if we could help,” St. Luke’s Senior Pastor Jennifer Stiles Williams said.

“The public schools were feeding the children, but no one was feeding the adults. Our artists and hospitality workers had been hit so hard, and we wanted to do something about that. It was God bringing together three groups of people.”

St. Luke's UMC Pastor Jennifer Stiles Williams greets a guest at the kickoff food distribution event for the Orlando artistic community. -- Photo by Howard Clifton

Starting May 12, those three partners combined to host a free drive-thru meal distribution at St. Luke’s. About 275 arts professionals received the food, and that number likely will increase as word spreads that the aid is available every Tuesday.

But there was a deeper message. It was St. Luke’s way of showing everyone the value that community has.

“I don’t want them to feel like it’s a hand-out. I feel like it’s a thank you. You’ve been feeding our soul for years, and now we’re going to feed your tummy,” St. Luke’s member Steve Fessler said.

“It was a good fit for the church, for the arts community, everybody knew where we were located, and there was room to do this with social distancing. But we also know they will be among the last groups to come back. It could take months. But we have to do it. If you talk the talk, you have to walk the walk. I feel that strongly.”

That’s why plans are already in the works to expand the outreach.

“You’ve gotta take a risk and trust your gut. God has given us the idea and is blessing it,” the Rev. Jennifer Stiles Williams said.

The Theatre Church

St. Luke’s theatre prowess is well-known throughout Orlando. Under the direction of Director of Contemporary Music & Theater Arts Steve MacKinnon, the church stages three major productions per year along with shorter drama segments during regular worship.

“It’s a way of saying to that community that we want to be a home for you,” Stiles Williams said. “They’ve often been marginalized from the church for whatever reason.”

The major productions attract large crowds and are professionally done. The Orlando Sentinel even offers theatrical reviews in its entertainment section.

“It’s like Broadway,” Stiles Williams said.

The church draws on talent throughout Central Florida, as well as its congregation. That helped it form a strong bond with the artistic community.

“Those relationships have been forged through our theatre program and helped identify St. Luke’s as a place where artists are valued and can feel safe,” MacKinnon said. “These people are my family, my peers, and my friends. To be able to do something and give them hope and say you are loved is important.

“Artists are the lifeblood and the heartbeat of Orlando. They support all of our tourism. And now they see a church that is walking the walk. I didn’t understand my calling at St. Luke’s as first. It’s really just the most overwhelming and fulfilling thing.”

Putting It Together

Identifying the need was easy. So was finding volunteers.

The logistics of such an outreach, though, was more complicated. How could everyone maintain social distancing? And how could they pay for the food?

That’s where the partnership with 4R Restaurant Group and its charitable arm Feed The Need Florida came in. Food was made available at $5 per meal. That worked out to $2,500 for 500 meals.

A church volunteer stepped up to pay for that first installment, and then, as Stiles Williams said, “It took on a life of its own.”

“Organizations trust us now that we’re going to be here and going to help,” she said. “The community knows they can come here and not feel embarrassed.”

While the food distribution is on one night, members can go back to the church on Wednesday and purchase dinner from food trucks operated by 4 Rivers Smokehouse. They also donate a dinner for an artist in need.

In turn, the company donates 10 percent of sales to the feeding project.

And about that first night of food distribution; suffice it to say it was emotional for all involved.

The Rolling Piano Company provided interactive entertainment for the opening food distribution event -- Photo by Howard Clifton

“We saw tears,” Fessler said. “People were crying as they came forward. They were feeling so lost. I feel like I was an instrument. I felt a real calling.”

And with the pandemic likely to continue causing havoc in the entertainment and travel industries, the need won’t subside any time soon.

And if the show of appreciation on social media from being served is any indication, neither will the gratitude. It's good to be appreciated and recognized. 

“I was moved to tears myself when I read the testimonies coming back on my Facebook page. It was a little bit of a moment of conviction,” Kelly said. “As I read those, it was what I thought could happen. It was more than making a meal for someone. It was a way to say you are valued.

“People are one event, one emergency away from serious financial straits, and that’s when they did have income. Now they don’t have any income. I kind of started putting that together and realized this population is sort of invisible. We all have to say, ‘What can I do?’”

You can see a group that others might find invisible. You can answer the call.

St. Luke’s did just that.

-- Joe Henderson is the News Content Editor for