December 15, 2022 | by Tom Huetteman
Editor's note: Remember to use our connectional system as you develop your local ministries! Feeding the hungry is a part of our DNA as United Methodists. Across our connection - from national agencies, jurisdictions, conferences and local churches - we resource one another on best practices in hunger ministries. Lake Merritt shares their story and you may find some great ideas here. Find even more innovative ideas to next level your church community ministry Check out UMC.org, and search for 'food pantry'. You will find thousands of articles and how-to's on community food support. If you are wondering how your tithe dollars feed people across the world, check out Global Ministries and UMCOR, the international mission agencies of The United Methodist Church.
“I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35).
A three decade practice of living out Jesus’ call to serve “the least of these brothers and sisters” is growing and vibrant at Lake Merritt UMC in downtown Oakland at 1330 Lakeshore Ave., Rev. Sunae Cho, Pastor. What started as a modest food pantry for those coming to our doors now serves 20,000 lunches and 5,000 bags of groceries per year to the unhoused and underserved in our community with the help of 1,000 volunteer sign-ups a year.
Thanksgiving is the highlight of our year when a joyful community comes together to prepare, serve and receive turkey meals for 300+ neighbors. Pre-Covid this was a sit-down meal, but the past few years has been offered as take-out. We are one of only two community meals offered on Thanksgiving Day in the East Bay. This year, ABC News stopped by to spot light this magical moment they called “We are Family”. It is a family affair indeed, the inclusive family of God, in table fellowship as a community living out the radical love of God.
The roots of Lake Merritt’s food ministries of table fellowship is its food pantry. This once modest effort to distribute groceries is now a vibrant partnership with the Alameda County Food Bank to distribute over 400 bags of groceries on the 4th Saturday of each month. Serving primarily first generation immigrant senior citizens, many in their 80s, the food pantry brings together many youth volunteers from local high schools to serve their elders. Upwards of 30 volunteers, different from month to month, join this monthly distribution. On the birthday of one of our most regular young volunteers, he decided that inviting his friends to handout food at our monthly pantry was the best way to celebrate. His joy at serving is a testament to the transformative power of joining this table fellowship.
About ten years ago, a member of the congregation felt moved to hand out lunches to the growing number of unhoused community members just minutes away from our church. What started as a dozen lunches on Sundays after church has now grown into “Lake Lunches” which distributes 400 lunches a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays. At the same time, this service to our brothers and sisters in need, became a magnet for a steady and growing stream of volunteers, mostly young people in their 20s and 30s who otherwise don’t attend traditional church services. This service is their “church.” Follow us on instagram @_lakelunches.
Through Lake Lunches we are connecting as the family of God with those who are so often unseen or even scorned in our community. This is not simply a handout of lunches, but a fellowship where we meet the people we serve where they live, where we learn their names, and where we practice love of neighbor. Our “table” is a set of wagons filled with lunches and pulled by volunteers, some as young as grade school age, to the tent shelters and park benches where our unhoused neighbors live. Along with lunches we provide an assortment of hygiene supplies and periodically socks, gloves, hats and scarves. It’s genuinely seeing the spirit of God in each other that makes this experience of service so powerful. We are all giving and receiving at God’s table, building a community of love far bigger than what can be measured on any given Sunday.
Come see for yourself the power of this ministry. Sign up to volunteer here, or learn more at our church website here. One meal at a time we are a growing family working toward the transformation of the world!