By Jessica Connor
RIDGELAND – They line up in droves beginning early in the morning – pregnant mothers with toddlers in tow, laborers who can’t find enough work to support their family, seniors inching along from Social Security check to Social Security check.
Outside the tiny, 15-member St. Stephen United Methodist Church, they stand in line to write their name on the sign-up list, waiting patiently to be called and ushered into the food bank.
Inside, sustenance – and hope – await: Cartons of milk and juice. Packages of fresh meat and nutritious vegetables. Colorful fruit, glossy cakes and loaves of bread.
“What do you need?” asks Helen Shuler, director of the food bank, opening her arms with a wide, warm smile as she greets each one. “Milk? Juice? Some cake?”
For the people who flock to St. Stephen UMC Food Bank, Shuler and her volunteers are like an oasis in a dark world of hunger and hopelessness, a place where they can feel welcome and leave knowing their family will survive another day.
“Whatever they ask for, they get,” Shuler said – from food and clothing to toys, all set up flea market/yard sale style behind the church. “Nobody is ever turned away unless we don’t have something.”
Even before the recession, the low-income neighborhood surrounding St. Stephen UMC was struggling. A quarter of Ridgeland’s population was living below the poverty level, and church members decided they could best serve their neighbors with a food bank. The effort quickly blossomed, and today, the church feeds thousands of people each month with distribution days every Monday and Thursday.
With barely more than a baker’s dozen members, St. Stephen isn’t the size of most churches managing a successful food outreach program, let alone one that does it twice a week, year-round.
“I don’t know how we do it, but we do it,” Shuler said, pointing heavenward. “God just keeps on providing for us. Sometimes I go in, look around and say, ‘Lord, our pantry is bare. What am I going to do?’ And He fills it right back up. He always fills it.
“Sometimes you’ve got to pinch yourself to believe it.”
An all-volunteer staff of three men and three women with Shuler (also a volunteer) at the helm, St. Stephen UMC Food Bank works nonstop to meet the needs of the community. Most of the week is spent collecting staples from larger food banks, grocery retailers like Publix and Food Lion, and trades with other area churches that have similar programs. The food bank gets very little funds, and most everything they have, like the coolers, has been donated.
Shuler hasn’t been on a vacation since she started.
“That’s all I think about – feeding the people,” she said.
Volunteers say the constant focus on giving feels good. It gives them purpose.
“I know what it is to be up, and I know what it is to be down. Through my trials and tribulations, I have learned to give more than I receive,” said volunteer Deloris McPherson. “I love giving.”
Volunteer Nettie Shuler Ferrell, Shuler’s aunt, said serving others through the food bank is a way for her to honor the help she received when she was struggling.
“There was a time when I didn’t have, and this is a way for me to give back,” Ferrell said. “It’s incentive for me to get up and get going – people rely on this. If I have something, I give it to them.”
Shuler agrees: “We’ve been blessed, and that’s what it’s all about. You forget about yourself and think about others. God is good to us.”
Years ago, Shuler’s mother was very ill, so thin she was skin and bones. Shuler came to the Lowcountry to care for her, then learned her own daughter was just as ill and had to go on dialysis. Shuler was torn: where to go, who to help, what to do.
“I was down on my knees, and the Lord came to me in a dream, just like this,” Shuler said, pressing her hands together in prayer. “He said, ‘You take care of your mom, and I’ll take care of your child.’ And he did.”
Her mother lived a long time after that, and her daughter is alive and well today. Shuler promised God if He would let them live, then she would serve Him.
Through the food bank, she has. She’s made it her life’s work – albeit unpaid – to give to others in the spirit that He gives to His people.
“I wish I could stand up on the highest mountain and tell all (about Him). It just makes me want to dance and shout,” she said.
The Rev. Fadetra Harrington, pastor of St. Stephen, said she is extraordinarily proud of the work her congregation does with the food bank, which she said is sorely needed by the local people.
“It’s definitely a way of strengthening your life and seeing your faith in action,” Harrington said. “It’s meeting the needs of the people, not just worship. Lots of people come for food twice a week, and sometimes it’s the only means they have.”
Recently, she said the food bank made a large-scale effort to invite people to worship at St. Stephen, providing food afterward. Many people came. Harrington said that showing the love of God by providing food not only renews people’s bodies and spirits, but also introduces them to Christ’s love for the world.
“When you reach out to people, people reach out to God,” she said.
Those who use the food bank say they are amazed at the generosity of the church and its volunteers.
Hermelinda Jimenez said the food bank is a big help to her family, especially now that her husband is not able to work as much. “I appreciate getting the food,” she said through a translator.
Luz Morales agreed. The economy hit her family extremely hard, and her husband has no job at all.
“I really appreciate what they’re doing,” Morales said. “They’re beautiful people to help us.”
Translator Elena Brannan comes every week to volunteer her services, and she tries her best to tell the community about the food bank.
“Lots of people with need come here, and they rely on this food,” Brannan said.
That reliance is key for the food bank and its volunteers. It brings them back day after day, week after week, year after year, knowing they are helping people who depend on them. And in serving, they stand strong in the knowledge that they are serving not just people, but the Lord Himself, regardless of the size of their church.
“No matter how small we may be, we do great things,” Shuler said.