Six years ago, Dottie Thaxton brought an idea to the mission committee of Clarksville Presbyterian Church (CPC), and a “Backpack Buddies” program was begun for children in their community. The church soon realized that the problem of hungry students was larger than they alone could address. So they joined hands with others and have seen the ministry grow.
CPC invited other churches and organizations in the area to participate, and today the ecumenical program provides food for 120 elementary students and 40 middle school students each week. The principal from the elementary school and the counselor from the middle school have shared about the needs within the student body, and the church helps where they can, providing school supplies, snacks, and personal hygiene items.
Wanting to do more than feeding the students, the church decided to help “feed” their brains as well. Twice a year a book fair hosted by the churches offers the Backpack Buddies an opportunity to choose books and other supplies. Working with the school librarian, the church hosts an Accelerated Readers’ Picnic for students who met reading goals during the school year. 170 students attended the most recent end of year picnic at a local park.
Linda Messier, who leads the CPC mission committee, shared that the church is in a small community which is economically depressed, so hunger is a major problem. In 2016, the local food pantry faced closing its doors, but CPC called a meeting with the ecumenical partners in the Backpack Buddies program. The food pantry was completely reorganized and is now providing more food, more often, to more clients – and in an updated facility. A group from CPC was instrumental in creating a board to run the food pantry as well as ecumenically-supported community dinners, and members of the church are involved in The Community Garden, which helps supply fresh food for the pantry. Dottie remains active in the church’s mission work, and her husband Robert now coordinates the food pantry ministry.
The food pantry won a grant from the local Food Lion, which works closely with the ministry. The grant allowed the pantry to update its facility and install a computer system.
PC(USA)’s Presbyterian Hunger Program invites congregations like Clarksville to join its network of Hunger Action Congregations (HACs) that covenant together to help alleviate hunger and eliminate its underlying causes. It just takes being active in one of six hunger response areas to participate. Clarksville Presbyterian is active in all six areas, which meant they could be a Certified HAC, and they joined in September of 2018.
While Clarksville members are active in reaching out with the love of Christ in their own community, they also give to the One Great Hour of Sharing, helping to make a difference in the lives of people in the United States and around the world. Gifts to OGHS support the work of the Presbyterian Hunger Program as well as Self-Development of People and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.
The backpack program and food pantry are not the full list of the ways church members are reaching out in their community. Last year the women of the church hosted a speaker from the nearby Madeline House for Abused Women to learn about the work of the mission and about their specific needs. The church helps provide goods and financial support.
And the church began working with a local Baptist Church to provide free soup and bread to three very needy neighborhoods once a month. The prepared soup is delivered to the neighborhoods in a van, and Linda shared, “it is not only soup, but relationships.” During the
2019 government shutdown, a food initiative started from this partnership helped provide extra food for some of the most needy families in the area.
A Virginia state senator is a member of Clarksville Presbyterian Church, and members take the opportunity to discuss issues and concerns about injustice. Reaching beyond their doors, members have written to both local and national members of Congress to express concern over livable wages and just and sustainable food systems. Feeling that education is a first step for improving lives, there is also concern about low teacher pay and dilapidated buildings in the area.
Messier shared that the interim preacher, Dr. Jonathan Barker, had often challenged the congregation to be part of the solution to the injustices, hunger and poverty they saw. The current pastor, Rev. Annette Eckerd Goard, arrived shortly before the church became a certified HAC. Impressed with how involved the church family was with local hunger issues, she encouraged them to apply, and she continues to both challenge and support the congregation’s efforts.
It doesn’t sound like the church is sticking with the status quo on their mission. Messier included in the HAC application, “With hunger being a big problem in our area, we often talk about it to determine what else our small congregation can do to help alleviate the problem.”
We are grateful to Clarksville Presbyterian Church and other churches who have covenanted with us as Hunger Action Congregations and shared their stories. Would your congregation like to join us?
Visit www.pcusa.org/hac to find out more about the six areas of response, and how to join.