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Taking Hope on the Road

December 14, 2010

Story and Photographs © Robin Nelson

All Rights Reserved

Cumming, GA – The volunteers report for their packing ‘shift’ full of laughs and smiles at the 6,000 square-foot warehouse, getting right to their task of filling hundreds of boxes with canned and non-perishable food for hungry people they will never meet.

They work with the efficiency of a well-oiled machine. They’re all members of the First Redeemer church a few miles away, and part of a 120-member There’s Hope for the Hungry ministry force that shares Christ-like love with the food to hundreds of scared and hungry people in 28 small towns throughout North Georgia.

“Our desire was to be more than just another food pantry where people to come to for a bag of groceries.  Our mission is to go where the needs are. We meet them in their own community and we’re able to share the gospel with them in the process of meeting their needs,” explains Scott Phillips, who coordinates the ministry’s daily operations.

While ‘There’s Hope’ is totally separate from First Redeemer Church and funded independently from the church, it was Dr. Richard Lee, the church’s pastor who had the vision and birthed the ministry.

“He had this idea to take food to these smaller towns that were seeing devastating increases in the numbers of carpet and textile mill shutdowns,” recalls Phillips, who took a position as the church’s evangelism outreach ministry after a logistics career in the Air Force.

“We aimed for those smaller towns, most of them far beyond the local range of our church, if we were just a place to come to for groceries. We wanted to take the ‘food pantry’ approach to a new level. It really hadn’t been done before. We didn’t have any preconceived ideas. We just knew someone had to do it, because those towns’ families were hurting and desperate.  Whole communities were reeling with huge increases in unemployment, and no relief in sight.”

There were many who scoffed in the beginning. “I didn’t find that it had been done anywhere in the country. I shared our idea to pastors and other food pantry ministries in dozens of communities to get their thoughts and suggestions. I was surprised at the number of pastors who said our project would never work. I remember one pastor who said people wouldn’t stick around to hear what we had to say. He said nobody would give us the time, they just want to receive something — just get their free food and go home.”

Seven years and thousands of food boxes later, “We’ve had a tremendous response. There are many more towns in north Georgia we’d like to reach,” he said. “We could if we had more trucks, volunteers and money to purchase the food,” he said.  There’s Hope operates on less than $500,000 a year, all of it from outside gifts. The non-perishable food is purchased in bulk from area food banks.

There’s Hope drivers and volunteers ease into each town once every month, parking one of two 40-foot trailers in a partnering church lot. Four days a week they set out orange cones to guide the traffic and meet with local church volunteers to pray before things get going. Some days there are two trucks and volunteer teams that head to different towns. On Fridays, the trucks return to the warehouse to reload for the next week’s destinations.

“We can’t do it alone, we need to partner with local churches. We want other churches to see the value in what we’re doing, put ‘denominations’ aside and meet the need. We have a record of every person who comes through here, and all their contact information. Once a person comes to the church where we’re parked, they register and meet with a volunteer counselor. We’re often dealing with a wide range of issues, ages and circumstances but mostly it is that there’s little money to put food on the table. Our counselors meet privately with each one, with the bigger purpose of sharing the gospel with them and encourage them to become part of a local church family. We’ve seen hundreds of decisions made and lives changed,” he said.

Each visitor receives a box of the ‘Hope Food,’ as well as bags of groceries collected by the local churches. At least one partnering church rallies its members to cook up enough casseroles, pasta, salads and drinks to serve scores of local residents in the cramped church basement as they wait for their turn to meet with a counselor upstairs.  A local hairstylist at that same church  donates her time and talent to provide free haircuts in a makeshift ‘salon’ in a nearby classroom. Other volunteers sort piles of donated clothing that that fill ten large tables outside the church, free to anyone who needs it.  The event is known as “Hope Day” in the small town.

“It’s all done with the utmost in dignity,” said Phillips. Each partnering church is responsible for the follow-up visits at home, he said. “It’s all very upbeat and positive and encouraging.”

“It’s tough when you’re a 54-year-old man with a 10th-grade education and diabetes, a wife and kids, and 400 people in town lose their job because the mill shuts down and the jobs go overseas. He’s worked hard and raised his kids the best he could, but what’s he going to do now? Unemployment checks run out eventually. He’s made carpet or textiles his whole life. He’s got no other skills. That man is scared to death.”

“We’re a ministry, not a social program. We’re not the Red Cross, United Way or the county social services,” Phillips stressed. “Our mission is simple — to bless folks who have lost hope and show them how they can have hope again,” he said.

Phillips would like to see these towns provided with a bus or truck with computers on board, along with an instructor to teach computer literacy and new job skills. He also envisions racks of clothes on board as well for those who need them, perhaps for job interviews. “If we had Bill Gates’ money, that’s what we would do with it,” he said.

“Ministry isn’t four walls, and it’s not just on Sunday.  These folks are tired of playing games. They need love and they’ve got to eat. We’re helping them right where they live,” Phillips said.

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