Associational food banks across state depend on offering to continue ministry

Associational food banks across state depend on offering to continue ministry

By Grace Thornton
The Alabama Baptist

Linda Sheppard said the couple had been all over Dothan trying to get help before they showed up at one of Judson Baptist Association’s ministry centers.

“He had the end stages of terminal cancer, and they were out of everything,” she said.

That’s the kind of people who often walk through their doors — people who have fallen through the cracks because they don’t qualify for other food and assistance programs, said Sheppard, who directs both of the association’s centers.

In the case of this couple — and many others like them — it’s because on paper they may have an income, but a large amount of their resources have gone toward cancer treatments, prescriptions and traveling to and from appointments.

“We consider that. We look at the whole situation, and we were able to help them,” Sheppard said. “The wife later wrote us a letter and thanked us because we had helped them, and he had passed away. She was so thankful he had gotten to meet some people who really cared before he died. It’s people like that we try to really work with and help them out.”

‘Share Jesus’

Judson Association’s ministry centers feed hundreds of people each month, with volunteers listening to their stories and asking their needs.

“These volunteers are men and women from our association’s churches, and they sit down with people who tell them things about their life that they don’t tell anybody else,” Sheppard said. “We get to pray with them, help them and share Jesus with them.”

Of the state’s 100 associational ministry centers, 53 received funds from the Alabama Hunger Offering for Global Hunger Relief last year. Because the centers and their volunteers — about 8,200 of them working statewide — are already in place, the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions (SBOM) is able to put the offering’s funds directly toward food.

“We distribute every penny given,” said Jim Swedenburg, director of the SBOM office of Cooperative Program and stewardship development. “Twenty-five percent of it is distributed in Alabama to these ministries.”

The rest goes to the Global Hunger Fund, which distributes 80% of its funds through the International Mission Board and 20% through the North American Mission Board to feed the hungry in the U.S. and Canada.

The offering will be collected this year on Feb. 16, though churches and individuals are welcome to give to the cause year-round.

It’s a big need, and in Alabama “we don’t come near meeting all the need,” Swedenburg said.

“We could feed more people if we had twice as much money come in through the offering.”

In past years, giving to the offering has dropped significantly in Alabama Baptist churches. The 2019 offering brought in $387,086, less than half of the $863,227 received in 2011. That means the 25% of last year’s offering allocated to helping hunger ministries in Alabama — just shy of $97,000 — only provided about 12 cents for each food insecure person in the state. In 2017, an estimated 795,760 Alabamians were food insecure, according to Feeding America.

Leroy Cole, who directs Covington Baptist Association’s three service centers, said they feed about 800 families a month by using ministry funds to purchase USDA food. Every year, they distribute around 400,000 pounds of food.

“The need has always been there,” he said. “We can’t take care of their entire monthly need, but we can help supplement what they have to help feed their families.”

‘Show who He is’

Those who seek help are fed spiritually too. Across the state, associational service centers saw 359 people profess new faith in Christ in 2019 as volunteers shared the gospel with them. Sheppard said it’s a wonderful thing to be a part of.

“We try to be Jesus to them, because so many of them are not in a church. They’ve never been to a church and they don’t know anything about the gospel,” she said. “We try to show them who He is through how we interact with them.”