Matthew 25 church an oasis in a food desert

Feeding both body and soul

By Zeena Regis | Presbyterians Today

 

Countryside Community Church | Esparto, California | Approximately 23 members

Matthew 25 focus: Described by a visitor as the “inside-out church of the 21st century,” the congregation is building congregational vitality while addressing systemic poverty and hunger by intentionally bringing its talents and resources out into its community.

 

Countryside Community Church recognized a need for residents of its rural California town to have access to fresh produce. With Matthew 25 as its guide, the congregation created The Sunday Table, which combines worship and praise and the feeding of its community each week. Courtesy of Countryside Community Church

Esparto, California, is surrounded by some of the most productive and lush farmland in the nation, producing vast crops of vegetables, fruits and nuts. Yet the town does not have a grocery store that sells fresh produce. For Countryside Community Church, which describes itself on its website as “an old church with a new vision,” this gap became an opportunity to live out its call as a Matthew 25 congregation.

Many in the church noted the irony that a community so blessed with agricultural resources could also be a food desert. Grocery stores that stock healthy and organic foods are inaccessible for some Esparto residents due to transportation limitations and financial insecurity, forcing them to rely on processed and packaged food items from a local dollar store. That’s when Countryside Community began reimagining what its food ministry could be — and it started with a conversation between its pastor, the Rev. Kathy McIntosh-Smith, and ruling elder, Jim Durst.

The congregation was already operating a traditional food pantry, but with its lines and boxes of food, McIntosh-Smith felt that it was somewhat impersonal and institutional. Durst, whose family has been farming in California’s Yolo County since the late 1800s, and who is now CEO of Durst Organic Growers — having planted the farm’s first organic crops in 1988 — had an idea. He suggested that the church’s food distribution become an extension of the Sunday worship service. They soon began envisioning a ministry that incorporated worship, hospitality, fun — and food.

After worship, the congregation set up a bounty of organic produce and other healthy staples on banquet tables and encouraged those in the community to mingle and connect with them. The event known as “The Sunday Table” would gather people around the “table,” encouraging all to join in singing traditional hymns, like “Amazing Grace,” in both English and Spanish. There was also a time of prayer, and The Sunday Table quickly became more than just a time to disseminate food. McIntosh-Smith and Durst say it became a celebration of “authentic connection and community.”

The ministry also sparked partnerships with the Yolo County Food Bank, which provides additional funds for the purchase of frozen poultry and eggs to distribute, as well as a neighboring Trader Joe’s grocery store, which donates unsold goods to Countryside Community.

The Sunday Table has also given church members and friends the opportunity to share and cultivate their unique gifts and talents. A congregant started offering classes on cooking and canning to the church members and the larger community. In addition to new friends, Countryside Community members are making jalapeno jams together that now find their way to The Sunday Table. There are also plans for an avid gardener in the congregation to start a church garden.

“In many ways, The Sunday Table revitalized us by giving us a common sense of purpose,” said McIntosh-Smith.

Virus didn’t stop the ministry

When COVID-19 came to Yolo County in March, it was clear that The Sunday Table was an essential operation for the Esparto community. The outdoor setup made it ideal for social distancing and COVID-19 infection control measures. After implementing safety precautions — the wearing of masks, spacing tables with produce apart, etc. — The Sunday Table has continued meeting during the pandemic to distribute much-needed food to its neighbors. An unexpected perk to the ministry that was already used to being outdoors was that the congregation has still been able to see one another — albeit from a safe social distance. If anything, the pandemic has expanded their ministry, McIntosh-Smith says.

“So, while we are not able to [traditionally] worship on Sundays in this time, we realized that we were still able to get together to do the essential business of distributing food, which has become a continuation of our worship and fellowship,” she said.

The economic impact on their small town as a result of COVID-19 has made the ministry even more imperative. Prior to the pandemic, The Sunday Table would serve 30 to 50 individuals a week. But since March, the program is reaching over 100 people weekly. The church has also increased its partnerships with local businesses, including farms and shops, which are eager to make a positive difference in this time of economic downturn.

Matthew 25 was a perfect fit

For Countryside Community, established in 1923, Matthew 25 has always served as a guiding call for all that the congregation did. Prior to finding out about the PC(USA)’s formal Matthew 25 invite in the spring of 2019, the congregation was already planning on adding the Matthew 25 Scripture — to serve the least of these — to the church’s website as a part of their mission statement.

“We don’t want to just worship for ourselves; we can’t just breathe in God’s love without also exhaling God’s love,” said McIntosh-Smith. “For our church to have any integrity and authenticity, we knew we needed to be grounded in service to our community.”

While the congregation might be small in numbers, its vision for the future is big. The church hopes one day to serve as a contextual education site for a minister or seminarian interested in learning more about the relationship between food insecurity, social justice, farming and faith. And, when the pandemic precautions are lifted, Countryside Community hopes to start bilingual conversation dinner groups for language learning.

Currently, Countryside Community’s multigenerational and economically diverse congregation is mostly white, but The Sunday Table seems to be shifting the church’s racial and ethnic makeup, McIntosh-Smith says. The pastor has also seen congregational vitality increase as new faces join the mission of loving others. McIntosh-Smith says that some of The Sunday Table’s most devoted volunteers first came to Countryside Community to receive food for their families. Now they have become the ministry’s biggest supporters.

“It’s really a beautiful thing to see people who once came for help now becoming the helpers,” said McIntosh-Smith.

Zeena Regis is a member of Oakhurst Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia.


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