The city of Sanford, located just off Interstate 4 about a half-hour east of Orlando, is a pleasant and scenic community.
|The oldest of seven siblings, 12-year-old Martayvious Bradley enjoys a sno-cone delight as part of Sanford's Picnic Project. His extended family living under one roof includes an aunt with three additional children.|
Pastors David and Meghan Killingsworth of Sanford’s First United Methodist Church quickly fell in love with their new home in 2017, after being assigned there following graduation from Duke Divinity School. It’s easy to understand why.
But as they quickly learned, beyond the town’s scenic waterfront, historic 19th-century architecture and quirky shops was a community in need. The chronic modern problems many cities face—homelessness, income disparity, hunger—had not passed Sanford by.
“In Sanford, we have a lack of social services for people who need them,” Meghan said. “You can’t do anything with what you don’t have.”
That’s where the church comes in.
Well, churches, plural.
What’s happening in Sanford is the result of God’s people coming together in ministry. No one is claiming sole credit. No one believes they are indispensable. The payoff for all is spreading the gospel of love through action to those who need it most.
People are being helped. Many suggest that’s all the reward that is needed.
This story isn’t just about a free meal or another outreach by a local church, though. While those are good things to celebrate and support, what’s happening in Sanford is something more. It’s a commitment by followers of God to be the example of Christ.
“It’s not like a soup kitchen at all,” Meghan Killingsworth said. “It’s a community, and we treat it like that. The church might otherwise be separated from those who have had a hard time.”
|Volunteers at the Picnic Project include a professional chef, Mark Thompson, shown in white. He says he "likes to prepare a restaurant-quality" meal because he likes "the dignity of it."|
Killingsworth said it’s a cross section of “nones” and “dones” and others who aren’t quite sure about church.
While those extending their hand include many United Methodists, those from other faiths, including Muslims, are also involved.
They offer food, fellowship, clothing and needed services.
They offer love, support, affirmation.
They offer the Bible, not just in God’s words, but in deeds.
“The irony is that we receive more blessings than we give out,” volunteer Jim Estep of First UMC in Sanford said. “That’s just the way it is when you see Jesus Christ in action.”
What’s going on in Sanford is a kind of merger of both long-term volunteer programs and more recent ones. They fill the void left by inadequate public funding while demonstrating God’s love in everyday ways.
It began about 25 years ago with a multi-church program called “Grace and Grits.” It was an attempt to offer meals to the homeless and hungry of Sanford. Years later, the “Picnic Project”—a nonprofit organization—was launched separately, Killingsworth said, as “an act of kingdom building” in a public park.
It was an outreach to people in the community who wanted to share three meals a week with those in need, but city officials expressed displeasure at the gatherings. Meanwhile, “Grace and Grits” was running into financial problems by paying hefty rent charges to use a public facility.
That’s where Killingsworth stepped in and offered the Sanford church rent free as a gathering place for their meetings, sending a message of hope.
More than one hundred people are served at a typical meal.
“Over the years, our church has developed a reputation for ministering to the homeless,” Estep said. “If you stopped one of them on the street and asked where they get something to eat, they would say the United Methodist Church.”
|Sanford outreach not only includes meals, but a social worker directing those in need toward support services. FUMC Sanford volunteer Jim Estep called it seeing "Jesus Christ in action."|
Multiple churches provide the food for the weekly meetings, and the money that once went to rent has been pooled to hire a social worker to help those most in need. They focus on case management and directing the needy to supportive services.
Meanwhile, the Picnic Project continues its work that has been going on for the last eight years. It’s not just food, although volunteer professional chef Mark Thompson prepares a hot meal for those who attend.
“It’s not a typical meal,” he said. “I try not to duplicate things. I don’t remember doing the same thing more than once. I try to prepare a restaurant-quality plated meal because I like the dignity of it. I want to show anyone that they are deserving of a meal like that.”
But there are also clothing, counseling and medical services—offered freely, without judgment, to those who need it most.
It’s hard to say where all this winds up, as “Grace and Grits” gradually merges with the “Picnic Project.”
“We’re still working on figuring that out as well,” Thompson said with a laugh.
Here is what everyone does know, though.
There is a need in Sanford, and God’s people are raising their hands to meet it. As Killingsworth said: “I don’t feel like we’re bringing the kingdom to those in need. I feel like they’re bringing it to us. It’s a beautiful thing.”
--Joe Henderson is a freelance writer based in Brandon