At our Storehouse, there is an involuntary sense of Us and Them. We are the ones welcoming Them into the place. We are the ones with the hygiene and food items. They are the ones who need them, and last Thursday, there were 116 of Them.
We are constantly working against this notion which would separate Us from Them. We smile. We say our names and we use Their names. A lot of information, some of it deeply personal, is shared between us. At times, and in appropriate ways, We give a kind touch to Them, whether guiding Them through the Storehouse or in prayer. It’s our constant effort to demonstrate oneness in the Storehouse between clients and volunteers.
Because, the possible message at the second level of separation, the deeper one, is ugly. An outsider looking in can almost always tell a client from a volunteer. We are clean and have a healthy hygiene. We wear recently washed clothes and some may even be expensive. Our hair is combed, brushed, and possibly coiffed, maybe to impress, but, at the least, to not offend. Our language and use of humor may indicate a good or broad education.
The human heart beating in a broken, sin-stained world cannot escape measuring and ordering. We do it all the time with things. Kohls is better than Walmart. A Lexus is better than a Honda. Our hearts also do this with people. We can’t help ourselves. It's part of the human condition. It is better to be in clean clothes than not. It’s better to smell good than bad. It’s better to be entertained by any one of the CSI police dramas than the drama of the Jerry Springer show.
The broken human heart may even beat with the message that it’s better to be one of Us than one of Them. And worse, is the possible thought that any given Us is better, or a better person, than any given Them.
The reason this is on my heart is because I strained a muscle in my back four weeks ago. It’s completely healed. But, as my chiropractor, Dr. Josi Owens, explained, it ticked off some conditions in my lumbar region that had already existed for some time. This resulted in an irritated sciatic nerve on my right side. The most excruciating pain I’ve ever known radiated down from my hip to the top of my foot. On a pain scale where 9 is “I know you’re talking but I can’t process what you’re saying,” and 10 is “I am completely unaware of my surroundings” I reached 8 a couple of times. A steroid shot, muscle relaxers, and a borrowed TENS unit could only do so much and last week I was in the Conway Regional Physical Therapy Unit. After evaluation, my therapist wanted to schedule 8 sessions.
One of the results of my sciatic nerve having overstimulated my leg muscles is I have what is commonly known as foot-drop. The muscle in my shin responsible to raise my foot so I could tap it along with good music just won’t work and I’ve been walking with a slight limp.
When I found out how much physical therapy would cost out of pocket, since I have a $6400 deductible and haven’t yet made a dent in, I realized I might walk with a limp the rest of my life.
Suddenly, I discovered how quickly anyone can jump from Us, to Them.
Our clients have all kinds of physical and mental ailments. Many of them walk with noticeable discomfort. A lot of them are missing teeth. At one time, it could have all been fixed. Enough physical therapy, the work of a good dentist, and people can overcome, at least on the outside, what’s visible, a lot of traumatic experiences.
Why didn’t they? “Them” didn’t have the opportunities and resources “Us” did.
It can happen so easily. For example, each year in Arkansas, there are four to five thousand children in foster care. What happens when a foster child turns 18 years old? The foster family stops receiving benefits, and some of those foster children are forced to leave their homes. They are suddenly homeless.
You know, there is a deepest level, of the notion of separation between Us and Them, and it’s terrifying. Believers hold myriad beliefs about the grace and blessings of God and how material things fit into it all and the book of Job is unsettling.
Remember, Job was a good guy with everything a good guy could hope for in the material world. Then God gave satan permission to mess things up and Job lost everything, even his health. Then his friends show up and a deep debate ensues regarding whether Job really was a good dude and if it was possible he brought everything on himself. In the end, God shows up and straightens Job out and then, in my broken heart’s opinion, the best part of the story happens.
Job gets everything and more back. Because God loved him.
The most insidious thread of the Us and Them is how confused we can be about God’s favor. Is it an obvious sign God’s favor rests on Us because we’re clean and smell good and we’re skilled and happy-hearted? Is it also an obvious sign God’s favor does not rest on Them because they aren’t? May Jesus help us not to weigh a person's goodness or God's favor on the amount of suffering They experience. God works in ways we can't possibly understand.
It’s as subtle as a wink, but it’s oh so important in the way we approach and serve and love on Them.
Our pantry is desperate for proteins such as canned meats and peanut butter. Also, canned pasta, pasta sauce, chili, soups, and beanie weanies. Cereal and hamburger helper remain our two most chosen items from the grains sections and we are out of the later and close to being out of the former.
Finally, I want to say this year for Christmas, Jesus is giving the city of Conway the People that He Loves. The Them of our community are His gift to you. I implore you to cherish them, in any way you can, like you will the gift you have actually asked Santa to bring you.
If you are a consistent reader of the Storehouse blog, then you probably know my deep affection for numbers. So, please, allow me to dazzle you with a few.
In October, we served 439 families in five shopping days. The first four averaged 100. Then we served 39 on Halloween night. We will only open on three Thursdays in November because the last Thursday is Thanksgiving. If all 439 families want to come again in November, in our three weeks, we’d serve 146 or so each week. I can’t imagine.
This week it was just 102. Just. Sheesh.
You’d think, under the crush of so many people, we’d lose IT. By IT, I mean the “thing” we’ve got that keeps people coming. And as I’ve written several times, that “thing” is the grace of Jesus.
Grace is giving others what they haven’t earned; what they could never earn. That’s what we’re striving for from the front door to the back. No matter how many clients come. No matter how they behave or their demeanor.
For many of us, gifting clients with grace is become routine. It’s the very reason we come. We look forward to the next opportunity to show it. Our language for that is "loving on people." We love on people, that's what we DO.
I had the opportunity to see serving in the Storehouse through brand new eyes this week. Our volunteer, Kathy, who has volunteered in the Ministry Center for five years, just began serving in the Storehouse. She’s done a little case management for us in the past, so I didn’t think she’d have any trouble stepping into the Storehouse. But there is a small learning curve. And she pointed that out to me in a text she sent after we served.
Hey Mike, I just wanted to let you know that I really enjoyed serving along side of y'all on Thursday. In the beginning, hiding out in kitchen sounded really good. Then when I started as a personal shopper, I thought oh no, with my anxiety level, will I be able to wait patiently while someone is taking their time shopping. Then the children came in. Only my dear friends know about how the little people calm me. So, the Lord showed me to treat every one of those clients as His children. Anytime you need help I'll be available on Thursdays.
This is the goal of the entire Ministry Center, whether we are working with a client in case management, or receiving guests in our warming station, or serving hungry families in the Storehouse.
To treat every person as one of His children.
How could our homes, our churches, our schools, our city, change when everyone who knows Jesus makes this their goal?
Well, I can tell you one way things change. Lots and lots and lots of people will show up to receive that treatment. They’ll come over and over.
So get ready.
In closing, I’d just like to thank everyone who is supporting our clients through bringing food to the Storehouse. One of our city’s churches will bring us food from their drive over the past two weeks. Last year, it was 880 pounds! What a difference two weeks makes!
Please do what you can to help our clients, from prayer to donations and everything in between.
We had our final EVENING serve in 2019 on Thursday. But that was not the only unique thing about that night. It was the fifth week to serve in the month. We had already provided food and hygiene for 400 families, 90 of those new to the pantry. It was also Halloween night, much colder than usual, and darker, since we’re a month closer to the Solstice.
But the most unique thing about that evening was that only four of our regular volunteers showed up. I had asked the rest to stay home not only because it was Halloween and they might have other obligations, but also because the girls’ softball team from Central Baptist College came and volunteered.
Here’s how that came about. A CBC student named Bri interned with us a couple semesters ago. She plays softball for CBC and wanted to get her team involved in what we do at the Ministry Center. A year later, she introduced me to her coach through email. A month ago, the two of them came to see what an evening serve looks like. Bri had to leave, but her coach was able to stay and we were so grateful. She stayed and volunteered that night bagging groceries, praying with clients, and loving on people. When it was over, she was hooked.
Last night, the entire team came. Three were in Dalmatian puppy costumes. They arrived earlier than normal, met the four regular volunteers and learned how we operate in the Storehouse. And the Holy Spirit came with them. They were smart and eager to learn. They all wanted to be as helpful as possible.
After tutorials, we got into our team meeting and I had my first wave of fear. We’ve had young volunteers, but we’d never had a volunteer crew of entirely young girls. They were all cute and charming. Some of our clients don’t know boundaries as well as others. How would I protect all these young women while they served our clients? It was clear I wouldn’t. I don’t protect our adult volunteers. Someone else has that job, and like I said, He came in with them.
I take that back. My first wave of fear showed up on Monday. What if no one comes? Was there a person left in Faulkner County that knows we have a pantry and hasn’t already been served? Would anyone come out on Halloween night in the cold and dark?
My fears were somewhat relieved when I was approached by one of our regular clients a few hours before we opened. He’s old and thin with a frail, squeaky voice. He asked if we were going to open at 4:30. When I said we were, he mentioned that he’d have to wait a few minutes. It was only 1:30, so I told him it would be a few hours. But he planned to come.
"Okay, we’ll have one client," I thought.
In team meeting, I wasn’t sure if we’d have more than one. I explained the entire reason we have a pantry at the Ministry Center is to get to love on and offer dignity to a marginalized population. I couldn’t tell by the looks on their faces if they understood what I was saying. We talked about grocery limits and being firm with clients even if their chins quivered. We talked about safety especially with the prayers because some clients like to touch and even hug a volunteer during or after prayers.
Then we stood, held hands, and I asked if someone would pray. One of the puppies prayed. She was also a volunteer who chose to pray with clients.
I went back to the cold food room several times to take pictures of our guests serving our clients. I was so amazed at their maturity and tenderness with our people. Especially the prayers. “Can I pray with you before you go? Is there something specific you’d like me to pray about?” I could tell they’d been trained by our volunteer Maria. As I listened to them pray, I heard them speaking the language of knowing Jesus.
It was obvious, in every volunteer/client interaction that these young women had understood exactly what I was talking about in team meeting. Each one offered love and dignity to our clients that night, just like we do every Thursday.
As it turned out, we had 39 clients. One of the last ones brought five or six children with her. They had the best time playing with our young volunteers.
After our last client was served, the volunteers pitched in to help count remaining items. They also boxed up the unchosen items, which was a huge amount, and weighed them out.
Finally it was time for the group picture. The definition of irony ? Our intern,Bri, wasn’t in the group; she’d had to work that night. As I snapped the last picture of the night, I felt the weight of what had happened in the Storehouse in the last three hours. Several of these girls live in different states. In four years, it’s possible that none of them will live in Conway. But they will take with them a vision and impression of our clients. They will have in their hearts exactly what it means to give food and dignity and grace to another person in the name of Jesus. That’s going wherever they are going.
Jordon, the coach of the team, said she’d like to do this every year in October. It’s also possible that we can set up a table at one of their home games and introduce ourselves to new friends at City of Colleges Park this spring.
All this because an intern fell in love with the Ministry Center last year.
Who knew? Well…I think we know.
This week’s serve was a menagerie of disparate events.
It started in team meeting with my relating a voicemail that had been left on our machine in the office by a client. Her call was not pertaining to her own recent visit, but her daughter’s. I’d classify this particular client as a person who does a great job at protecting her heart. Kinda tough on the outside, and doesn’t indicate need or vulnerability, even when she’s visiting the pantry for food she needs.
I wasn’t surprised to hear her words of gratitude for the Storehouse. We hear that quite a bit from clients, and have heard it from her, too. But her gratitude was centered on how well we’d served her daughter. Apparently, on the hour long ride to her home, her daughter had shared her amazement at how kind everyone had been to her and how tenderly and gracefully she’d been treated. Mom became more emotional as the message went on.
The grace of our King Jesus, through ,our volunteers had touched her daughter’s heart, and it was almost more than her mom’s heart could bear.
Much later in the day, we actually had a mom and daughter shop in the pantry together. A volunteer found me to share what had been going on in the dry food room. She had witnessed the daughter shopping, while the mom secretly stashed food items in bags she’d brought with her.
We stood outside the cold food room. “Is that them?” I asked. Our Case Management staff knows this duo well. They are homeless and deal with a bit of mental illness and drug addiction. My heart wanted to approach the mom and make her open her bags. I sometimes find myself falling into the “grace for me, law for everybody else” trap believers can so easily slip into.
I don’t understand why they both weren’t shopping. Our rule for households is that only one person per household can shop. We strive to steward every precious food donation to feed as many households as possible. But do two people in a tent or a big cardboard box constitute a household? This will definitely be a bullet point at our next pre-serve team meeting.
A client asked about hoses for a washing machine. “I have a machine at home; we just don’t have any hoses.” The last time my home needed washer hoses, I just went down to Lowes and bought them. But our clients don’t have resources like I do. Nor the same opportunities.
I could have sworn I remembered seeing a pair of hoses left behind in a part of the campus we no longer occupy. I was right, and another need was met.
Later, we served a transgender female. Our volunteer called the masculine name written on the shopping card. She said it more like a question, with a quizzical look on her face.
“That’s my legal name,” the client replied in a noticeably husky voice while gazing at the floor.
Our personal shopper smiled, caught his eyes with hers and said, “Come on, let’s start shopping.” And they disappeared into the hygiene room.
It is our great hope to serve each one of our clients in such a way that any of their mommas could leave a voicemail on our machine, through tears, about how well their child had been treated and cared for in the Storehouse.
Then a man I’d never met walked up, shook my hand, and said he was from another pantry here in town located in one of our city’s churches. He just wanted to come by and see how we serve clients. I took him on a tour and several times he expressed amazement at what we do. It was his first time to visit a client choice pantry, where clients don’t get a pre-packaged box of food, but actually shop as though in a store.
The coolest moment came when we were in the cold food room. It’s chaos in there, but every person of the group (sometimes ten or eleven people) knows what’s happening and what they’re doing. I explained that shopping and grocery bagging happens here. “And then, a volunteer offers to pray for our clients.”
As if on cue, a volunteer bowed his head with a client. There, in the midst of chaos, two people stood before the throne of grace.
We have served exactly 400 clients in four serves. I don’t know if there is a hungry person in Faulkner County who is aware of the StoreHouse that hasn’t already been served by us in October. But we’ll find out next Thursday, on Halloween night. The ladies softball team from Central Baptist College will be our night crew so our regular volunteers can serve at holiday events at their churches, or accompany children as they trick-or-treat, or just rest.
By the way, if you’re reading this in your browser, over on the right > you’ll see a link to our Amazon Wish List. We’ve fancified that spot. I’d love for you to just check it out. If you do decide to gift us, please go to smile.amazon.com for that. You can choose the Ministry Center as a recipient and then Amazon will send us a little of the purchase price. A double blessing!
Thank you so for loving and supporting our clients. You’ve blessed them in countless ways.
Last week, we served 119 families, and 20% of them were new to the Storehouse. That’s 23.8 families!! Probably more like 23 or 24. That’s a lot! We served 111 this week. And again, a lot of those families were new. I always wonder and usually want to know how some of them ended up in the Storehouse.
And most of them are women. Women I don’t know. And so I need a opening line, something to break the ice, something that doesn’t sound too intrusive for a stranger to walk right up and say. So, I’ve settled on,
“How did you hear about us?”
It’s a safe question. So safe, in fact, that clients never give the short answer. They never just say, “A friend,” or some other agency. They start right into their story. I just lost my job, my fiancé is in jail, I’ve got custody of my grandkids. The stories are varied, but have one distinct thing in common... We’re suddenly in deep need.
One of our new clients had come with his dad. He and his family had relocated from Texas. His dad suddenly had 5 more people to feed. During registration, the dad, late 60s, explained they didn’t know a thing about getting help at pantries. They’d never been to one, or ever thought they would. The client’s wife had found a job, and he was looking. He would have applied online for a job at Goodwill, but he still had 14 pins in his right forearm. And a metal bar on the outside. That would come off in a couple of weeks. Then he could get a job.
He’d been run off the road in Texas. On a mountain road. When a couple of trees stopped his car, his forearm was shattered, as well as his right orbital bone, the one around the eye, which now holds its own surgical hardware.
After shopping, our clients go to their vehicles and drive around to the back parking lot. When they arrive, we take their groceries out and load them into their cars. Often, the shopper is not the driver, or two shoppers are riding in one car. In that case, one shopper will wait at the door. That’s where I found a lady yesterday morning.
Her head was down as she was reading through a book. It’s a little book. It’s the one the check-out volunteers, who also pray for clients, give away to shoppers before they leave. It’s the book of John; written for the purpose of introducing the reader to Jesus.
We talk about this moment, and these little books, with people and pastors who are interested in learning about what more we do in the Storehouse than give away food. I seized the moment and asked her if I could take her picture, as an example of that very thing, and publish it through our social media. She quickly agreed and signed a release. Then she began her story.
“My husband recently died. We were like this,” she said as she took the little book in one hand and then held them less than an inch apart. “I just miss him so, and I’ve been adrift since he left.
“I know Jesus is in my heart. I just can’t seem to get settled. And I can't wait to get home and read this all the way through.”
Our returning clients have stories too.
Last month, we broke one of our rules, when, one Thursday, a late 50s lady came to the Storehouse near the end of the day. She’s been here plenty of times, but always alone. This time, her husband was with her. He didn’t look too well. He’d just finished radiation treatments and he hasn’t very steady on his feet.
She asked how long the wait would be, and when we told her, she said they would just leave. They live outside of Conway and couldn’t wait. So we checked her in and let them shop immediately. They gushed their gratitude.
She was back yesterday and I asked how her husband was doing. She said a few months ago he’d thought he had bitten his tongue. His PCP referred him to an Ear, Nose and Throat. A week later, he was talking to an oncologist. The following week, he was in surgery.
For face and neck cancers, the teeth are removed. The integrity of the jaw is lost in the surgeries and chemo. Plus, the radiation had burned his throat. The only way he could eat was through a feeding tube. So, hydration was an issue. For over two weeks, they’d driven to UAMS every day. It was maddening. But things were better now. More calm.
She thanked me for asking about her husband.
I never get tired of hearing the stories of those we serve.
Can you help?
In the third quarter, we averaged 12 more families per serve than we did in the first half of the year. That’s an extra 50-60 clients a month. We served twelve times in the quarter. Four times we broke 100 families, both times on consecutive weeks. We’re tired and we’ve been hot.
Have I mentioned only one of the twin air conditioning units in the building works?
But the stress on our volunteers hasn’t been as much as the stress on our warehouse. We order food from the Arkansas Food Bank each month and they deliver on the third Monday for a nominal fee. In the third quarter we received almost 15000 pounds of food from them. Our last order was dropped on Monday, September 23. This past Thursday, on our second serve since receipt, Debbie asked, not knowing our delivery schedule, when we would receive our next order. Most of what we’d ordered was already gone.
I’ve come to grips with the fact that I live in the physical world and make changes in it with my body. These changes take some effort; I collect food, manage volunteers, oversee a small grocery store, and serve clients once a week. I have a huge influence over a minuscule part of the physical world in which we live.
And I’ll just admit, no lie, when I began this work, I tried to do it in my flesh. I fretted about much of it and was really controlling. And because I couldn’t control everything, like the amount of food we had to give away, I wrestled with resentments. That’s not true. I gave in to resentments. And at times, wallowed.
But, that was over a year ago. I sometimes wonder if Jesus put me in this role first, to show me the ridiculous fear and pity I hold next to my heart, and then, to grow me out of that. And, I’ve grown…a little. Now, as often as I can, I do this work in the Spirit. I believe God is in control of this whole thing. Energy and wisdom are from him. He sees it all, mistakes and everything, and he’s using its entirety for his glory, his story, his purposes.
However, a year’s worth of growth was put to the test last Thursday night.
Last week I wrote about the joy and agony of loving and shared some moments with clients from last week’s serve that weighed on my heart. But I didn’t share what began that thread in me.
I was in the warehouse, well after serve had begun. And I was wrestling with our food quantity. Well, that’s not actually true. Our food, for the most part, is pretty passive. I was actually wrestling with my feelings about how we’ll continue to feed our increasing number of clients with our dwindling stash of food.
Specifically, I was staring at the pasta sauce. It’s a hot item and clients take almost 200 cans a month. When Feed the Need concluded, we had an entire pallet of Hunt’s 24 oz. cans of the stuff in those pretty red labels. There must have been five different varieties and I thought we’d never run out. But we did.
By 9:15 a.m. I was outside in the line of clients, registering them for the day’s serve. Among them was a young mom; bright, happy, kid on her hip. We’ve served her many times.
The door opens and clients stream in. I turn registration over to Barbara and begin making the rounds. I touch base with all the serving areas and return to the door. For the first hour, or longer, this will be the most congested place, the most probable spot for tension or client discontent.
The doorbell rings and it’s the bright young mom, alone this time. She’s wanting to know how leaving and returning is handled.
“The school called. My son threw up, so I had to go get him. They won’t let students stay if they throw up. He’s not sick; he just threw up. I dropped him off at home.”
She hears, “Well normally, when someone leaves, they go to the end of the line when they come back.”
That’s easily 30 places from her original spot in our sign-up line.
Then, “Come on, we’ll work you in.”
As I am sometimes able to do, I had coffee with a volunteer before we served on Thursday. I was tired, and he said I looked so. And that was not completely due to the fact I’d been awake since 4:15 that morning.
Being in and out of the heat these past four weeks had begun and continued to take a toll on my body; and my spirits. I finally choked out my feelings. “I think I’m bored in my work at the Storehouse,” I said.
And now I’m not so sure that bored was the appropriate word. I mean, there is plenty to do. The first two Storehouse directors were in part-time positions and I can’t comprehend how they did it. Because, there is plenty to do. And much of that is interesting. I enjoy seeing and speaking to the local donors that share food with us. I like handling donations and dealing with numbers. And I so enjoy our volunteers and clients. They are really interesting! Both groups!
Maybe a better word would have been defeated. No, wait, it’s ineffective. Yes, that’s the word.
I am the Storehouse Director and get the privilege of writing about the people that Jesus loves.
Contact Mike Rush at firstname.lastname@example.org for all things "Volunteer".
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