How big is the demand for food right now? A half-hour before Saturday’s food distribution was supposed to start at Messiah Lutheran Church, the cars didn’t circle just the church. They circled the entire neighborhood.
Drivers were lined up along five or six blocks around the church, waiting for their turn at the drive-thru distribution. Messiah Lutheran is at North Locust and West Seventh streets, but cars were bumper to bumper on North Wheeler, West Eighth and other neighboring streets.
The distribution is supposed to start each week at 3 p.m. But there are so many cars lined up every week that the church starts handing out food at 2:30.
Messiah Lutheran has served Saturday Suppers indoors every week for 15 years. Because of COVID-19, the church moved to outdoor distribution in early April.
The week before, 136 cars came through the food line. Each week, 400 to 600 meals are given out.
Jim Elrod, one of the people in charge of the Saturday Suppers, believes the demand for food is greater during the pandemic.
“Oh, I’d say way greater,” he said. When the operation was indoors, “We were doing anywhere from 125 to 170 meals a week. Now we do 400 to 600.”
An overhang at Messiah Lutheran carries the words, “Teach me thy way, O Lord.” The church has learned that lesson.
Slightly more than 20 volunteers were working hard Saturday afternoon, making sure that people get fed. Elrod’s wife, Janice, is one of the other organizers.
Jill and Jason Vasquez, who go to Third City Christian Church, have been helping with Saturday Suppers for two or three years. “Jim and Jan have made such an amazing ministry. It’s just grown. So we like to support them,” Jill Vasquez said.
Also helping were Jessica and Brent Grummert, their 15-year-old son, Dillon, and a couple of Dillon’s friends. The Grummerts also go to Third City Christian.
“It’s good to be out in the community,” Jessica said. She likes to show her son “how other people live and not to take life for granted.”
Melissa Tolen of New Life Community Church tries to help with Saturday Suppers at least once a month.
Her family had medical problems a while back. “The community really pulled together to help us out,” Tolen said. “This is our way of giving back — being community to others.”
Another volunteer was Nadia Castillo, 18. She’s been coming two or three times a month to help since May. Castillo grew up on the south side of Chicago, poor, so she knows what it’s like to be needy.
During normal times, the Saturday Supper is served from 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Now, the distribution basically goes from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Elrod saw cars lining up Saturday before 11 a.m.
He believes the line of cars “indicates the need in the greater community of Grand Island.”
In addition to job troubles, perhaps the recipients have been faced with a big medical bill. “Whatever the situation is we’re here to help,” he said.
Elrod has heard that 350 boxes of food are handed out every Friday at St. Paul.
Messiah Evangelical Lutheran is a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “God’s Work. Our Hands” is the mission statement of the ELCA.
Saturday Suppers are “one example of how God is working in this community through countless people and food resources to feed as many people as possible,” the Rev. Steven Peeler, the church’s interim minister, said in a statement.
“I am extremely grateful to Messiah, our neighbors, the families we serve and all our community partners that make Saturday Suppers possible,” Peeler said in the statement.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Peeler noted, the Saturday Supper patrons dined at tables. “The pandemic has challenged Messiah to think creatively to adapt to this unprecedented circumstance while incorporating safety measures such as masks to prevent the spread of the virus,” the statement reads.
Each Saturday, prepackaged meals are handed out on the south side of the church. Families are free to enjoy those meals right away, or warm them up later. Boxes of uncooked food are distributed in the parking lot on the north side.
Some of the food comes from the Farmers to Families Food Box program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Some beef makes its way across town. “JBS has donated ground beef to us for about the last year now,” Elrod said.
Church members also pick up food from CHI Health St. Francis, Hy-Vee and the two Super Savers.
Messiah Lutheran receives leftover food from funerals and graduation parties. Habitat for Humanity is another organization that provides food.
In addition to Third City Christian, the members of St. Stephen’s Episcopal are “a big help” with the meals, Elrod said.
The volunteers include people working in the Messiah Lutheran kitchen.
“So it takes a lot of people to make it work,” Elrod said.
To keep the suppers going, the volunteers have to haul a lot of boxes.
In order to fill up plates, Messiah Lutheran also has to do paperwork. The church is due to receive $75,000 from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
How devoted are the people of Messiah Lutheran to providing food?
On Saturday afternoon, when the cars had thinned out, four members of Messiah Lutheran’s men’s Bible study headed off to deliver food to 25 homes. Rick Stueven is the head of that group, which meets Wednesdays.
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