By Jessica Connor
SIMPSONVILLE—They arrive in droves: parents with young children in tow, older adults on oxygen, teenagers and 20-somethings. All to do their part to end hunger one packet at a time.
Wearing hairnets, baseball caps and T-shirts, they crowd around tables in the Christian Life Center at Advent United Methodist Church, Simpsonville, carefully measuring out rice and soy protein. The tone is a mix of serious and playful. Orders blend with teasing laughter. Christian contemporary music booms from the loudspeakers. Wild-eyed kids navigate the sea of assembly line workers, toting bins of dehydrated food packets and looking for their next task. Outside, on large pallets, boxes are stacked across and then six high before being loaded onto the truck, bound for Houston, then Mexico, then ultimately to South America.
Here! Ready! an 8-year-old boy calls out, the plastic tub in his arms crammed with a dozen plastic meal bags “ the difference between starvation and life for some family across the equator.
Today is the Stop Hunger Now packaging event for the Greenville District of the S.C. Annual Conference “ nearly a year of prayers, physical labor and fundraising all culminating in one 12-hour District Great Day of Service.
This is the most organized chaos I ve ever been around, participant Barbara Ware said, laughing. It s total chaos, but everybody knows what they re doing.
It s just unbelievable, said Leigh Randall, director of youth ministry at Advent UMC and one of the key organizers of the Great Day of Service. Her eyes are wide as they scan the crowd of people across the church campus. It s all brothers and sisters, all serving together, getting to know each other. It s a step beyond community, with God involved in the middle. It s like communion.
Over a billion hungry worldwide
Held April 21 at one of the largest churches in the district, the Great Day of Service packaging event was youth-driven and youth-led from the start. Last summer, a group of district youth headed to Purdue University for the United Methodist Youth Fellowship gathering, where they got the chance to participate in a national packaging event with Stop Hunger Now. Stop Hunger Now is a nonprofit ministry that helps volunteers purchase, pack and ship a nutritious mix of food products to hungry people around the world.
The seventh through 12th graders were instantly impacted by the experience. And when they learned the harsh realities of global hunger, they were spurred to action.
When we heard the facts, it just really spoke to us: Every six seconds, a child dies of hunger; over a billion people are hungry; 25,000 die each day from hunger, said Davis Crews, 12, who attends Advent with his family. Yet we have enough food. It s just a distribution problem.
Crews and other youth on the trip decided they needed to be part of the solution. Stop Hunger Now partners with local volunteers who package life-saving meals. The meals, sealed in a vacuum-packed bag, comprise rice, soy, dehydrated vegetables, flavoring and a mixture of 21 vitamins and minerals into reasonable servings of six. Dr. Michael Wolfe, senior pastor of host site Advent UMC, described the meals as kind of like a beef stew, but way more nutritious.
Crews and fellow youth decided they wanted to do a Stop Hunger Now event in Upstate South Carolina. So they prayed on it, then went to Wolfe to see if they could hold it at Advent.
Wolfe thought it was a great idea, and he suggested the youth take it to the district to see if others wanted to be involved, too.
The idea caught fire and kept burning, sweeping in a gust of connectionalism from church to church, all over the district and beyond. Scout troops, school Beta Clubs and other denominations also got involved.
Huge outpouring of support
But the task, at least to the adults, was daunting. They needed to raise $72,000, plus 1,200 volunteers, to pay for and assemble 285,000 meals to fill a semitruck trailer and meet their goal.
They got to work, raising money in a variety of ways from the smallest church to the largest. Very young children collected nickels and dimes in plastic baggies, raising about $2,000 for the cause. Youth and adults held dinners, yard sales and car washes. One seventh grader spoke at UMCs around the district. A handful did a flamingo flocking, raising $19,000. An anonymous donor agreed to match up to $15,000 “ and did. Soon, they not only met but exceeded their $72,000 goal. By April 21, the team had raised more than $100,000 “ enough to not only pay for that day s packaging event, but also pay for an additional smaller packaging event at nearby Mauldin UMC in late summer. (Details coming soon.)
It s been really an outpouring, Wolfe said. Some small member churches sent in $1,000. That s a big deal when you ve got 15 people in worship. ¦ The whole experience says we can do big things.
Virginia Crews, another of the Day of Service organizers and mother to Davis Crews, said the event was never in their hands to begin with “ it was a call by God, heard by youth and catapulted into action.
The plan was beyond our own imaginings, our own dreams. We needed to get out of our own way, she said. The youth said, ˜We, church, are going to do this, and y all are going to stand behind us. That was the driver.
As Ware said, It s hard for people to turn youth down.
Volunteer overflow a ˜loaves and fishes moment
While the money was one obstacle, lining up enough people to do the labor was another. A 285,000-meal packaging event like this takes a massive amount of people: 1,200 to work four three-hour shifts, 300 people per shift. Even though they had the funding, on the Tuesday before the event, organizers were a little nervous; they had just 800 volunteers signed up.
But God worked His miracles, they said.
On Friday morning they had 1,000 workers, and 24 hours later, they had reached 1,200.
It feels awesome, Davis Crews said. It s just incredible to be here with all these people who came together to package food for the hungry.
Rebecca Griffeth, director of children and youth ministries at St. Matthew UMC, Greer, and part of the core team, said she was in tears the morning of the packaging event, looking around and watching the sea of people pitching in for one common cause.
To know that this little group had a vision, and how hard we prayed to make sure our kids would see it as successful, and a month ago, we didn t even know we would make our goal, Griffeth said. And now, to see how richly God has blessed us: over our money goal, too many volunteers for one shift. It was truly a God moment, truly a loaves and fishes moment.
The Rev. Jerry Hill, Buncombe Street UMC, Greenville, said the sheer number of people who showed up to help with the Great Day of Service speaks volumes about the local mission potential.
If these people are this dedicated to come out for this, they may do other things, get really involved as change agents, Hill said. It s biblical. It says a little child can lead them. As adult
s, we get so caught up in just making it, getting by, but the youth just catch fire. It s been really empowering for the district.
The Rev. Cathy Joens, congregational specialist for the district, called the Great Day of Service connectionalism at its best. From 5-year-olds carrying buckets and being runners to the older adults serving at their side, she said the whole experience has been an amazing example of the way the church works.
Ware agreed: That s what being a Methodist is all about. When we do things together, we can do big things.
Through God, anything is possible
For their part, the youth are just happy they were able to accomplish what they set out to do: organize a successful event that helped alleviate hunger in some way for a hurting and perhaps hopeless people half a world away.
To know there are kids out there who need food really bothers me a lot. Most of the time, people in America don t see the hunger and the harshness. There s something we can do about it, so why don t we? said Sarah Whitt, 15, part of the core group. If you re going to shoot for the stars, why not shoot for the stars instead of the moon?
Crews has already been in touch with his middle school about doing a similar event for his fellow students. Hunger advocacy has latched onto him, and he won t rest until he does all he can to alleviate the problem.
For his part, he knows it will succeed.
A group of people working for God can do anything, Crews said.
For more information about Stop Hunger Now, or to learn more about organizing a similar packaging event, visit www.stophungernow.org.