Developing Missional Food Pantries to Transform Communities
What does an international mission trip have to do with Zip Code 46208? Everything, if you ask Merlin Gonzales, founder and executive director of Faith Hope Love (FHL) Community.
In early 2002, Gonzales came home to Indianapolis, Indiana, from a mission trip abroad. Time and money prevented him from pursuing further outreach overseas, so he turned to missions in his own backyard. Soon he invited seven area churches to help him determine what the community needed.
Faith Hope Love Week Launched in 2005
By July 2005, and with the help of 300 volunteers that the churches sent, Gonzales launched the first Faith Hope Love Week. Volunteers worked throughout Indianapolis to meet some of the needs they had identified in various parts of the community. In August, they sent people to help with Hurricane Katrina recovery and by November, volunteers were looking to accomplish something big the next year.
For the second Faith Hope Love Week in 2006, FHL secured the then Conseco Fieldhouse and brought in Christian songwriter and artist Matthew West. By the time FHL Week rolled around, 1,200 volunteers were involved, many of whom marched around Circle Center in downtown Indianapolis seven times to dedicate the week.
New Direction Sets the Future for the Ministry
FHL projects were going better by 2010, but Gonzales was ambivalent. Even with a number of mission projects completed, Gonzales had no idea how FHL was going to develop long-term. As a former outreach pastor, he felt that he needed to be reaching people in a more organized fashion. But how? “Lord, I’m getting tired of one event each year,” he prayed. “It’s like VBS. You do it and put the file away until next year.”
An idea had already been planted in 2006 when volunteers, eager to go beyond the annual event, operated a mobile grocery store in the parking lot of a Hispanic grocery, then at different venues every six weeks. A second church developed a similar program, serving as many as 150 families on one occasion. The idea began to take on significance, Gonzales recalls. The church wanted to know how to sustain the ministry, something that is often difficult to accomplish.
That was the shift he’d been looking for, so Gonzales began teaching churches how to develop and maintain food pantry ministries. By 2012, Gonzales and FHL Community were focused on incubating sustainable food pantries, creating materials, and training churches for pantry ministries.
“The Lord started teaching me about charging the churches so they had ‘some skin in it the game,’” remembers Gonzales. He had observed that financial commitment was tied to food pantry success. Since that time, Gonzales and FHL Community have trained 21 churches. Five of the food panties target and operate in the most dangerous areas of Indianapolis, including Zip Code 46208.
Going Deeper – Focusing Food Pantry Ministries on People, Not Food
FHL is now going deeper. “A system without relationships won’t be long-lasting” he says. “Successful food pantries should be relational. People come before food.”
So how does FHL make food pantries relational? The ministry is supported by three pillars: Helping Those in Need (Acts 5:1-7), Sharing the Gospel (Mark 16), and Disciplining the Nations (Matthew 28). According to Gonzales, churches that implement these three pillars of food pantry ministry are healthier and experience growth.
Food pantry ministries can be instrumental in transforming people. Gonzales points to Alicia, a diabetic amputee, as a good example of someone whose life has been transformed through the ministry of a food pantry.
Alicia received food from a church pantry half a block from her home. Over time, she became involved in the pantry ministry and began to grow spiritually. After a year, she joined the choir and soon became a part of the pantry prayer team. Although she lives alone, she now has friends and is currently looking for a job.
“Alicia is an example of transformation brought about by tangible expressions of God’s love,” Gonzales says. “It wasn’t food that transformed; it was relationship. God has been working in Alicia’s life.”
Food Pantries Elevate Churches’ Influence in their Neighborhoods
Food pantries, Gonzales says, can bring other changes. Alicia’s church, for instance, was directly across the street from a drug house. The pastor of the church called Gonzales for advice, and he was able to teach the church and pastor how to engage people. Since then, the pastor reports that the community calls him the “neighborhood pastor.” The church has become more visible and a transforming influence within the community as a result of its missional food pantry.
“There is a growing atmosphere of respect and honor that flows from a food pantry ministry,” Gonzales says. “It happens when the ministry focuses on people.”
In the future, Gonzales anticipates providing wrap-around services. “When people come to a food pantry, they are already in crisis,” he explains. “Someone may need a job, money, or a car. We want to go beyond help by saying: ‘We know someone who can help you—Jesus can.’”
Gonzales also suggests that Christians should provide government with practical answers to social issues. “We need to be agents of change,” he says. “If we can show the government that people are more involved in their communities and the trickle-down effect that has, we can start influencing the government better.”
It’s about people, not food, in Zip Code 46208 and beyond. “I love seeing God at work,” says Gonzales. “He’s using my hands and feet. Things are happening before my eyes.”
Faith Hope Love Community Gallery