By Jessica Brodie
PIEDMONT—It’s a hot and sunny July afternoon in the Upstate, and the fellowship hall doors at Piedmont United Methodist Church are open to let in the slight breeze.
A van pulls up and a kid hops out, making a beeline for an inside table, where she signs her name and heads for the food spread. Her mom waves as Piedmont’s pastor ambles over, leaning his head in the car to chat while her daughter collects food bags and says hi to some of the other kids. A foursome gathers around folding tables eating turkey and cheese sandwiches and munching on baby carrots and Tostitos.
“See you tomorrow,” the Rev. Matthew Greer says as the girl climbs back into the van and it pulls away.
This is Christian love in action at Piedmont UMC, a small church in a former mill town whose residents are doing their best to stay healthy amid financial hardship, a pandemic and half a dozen other issues that could sap their spirit.
For the last six years, Piedmont has been operating a thriving summer feeding program on-site, its members trying to help the surrounding community in the name of Jesus.
“It’s about being a good neighbor,” Greer said, noting the community is a food desert. Other than the local Dollar General, there is no place to get groceries unless one has transportation to a grocery store many miles away—and many of the residents do not have cars.
Piedmont UMC feeds about 100 kids aged 18 and younger all summer long every week, from the day after school lets out until the day before it starts up again in August. Greer calls the church “glorified middle-people,” as the food comes from the Freedom Within Walls organization, and all they have to do is open their doors, prepare the food for pickup and track their numbers.
“It’s super easy,” Greer said.
He and weekly volunteers Maria Hollis and Pat Stranger gather around noon to prepare the boxes and bags. Around 12:30, neighborhood kids begin to trickle in.
The day the Advocate visited, middle schoolers Aubrey and Reagan have brought Reagan’s little sister, Harlyn, and their new friend, Kameryn, and the girls laugh and tease Greer while they eat and play with some of the activities laid out on the tables for them.
Cars pull through the drive, as well, and parents send in their kids to grab their bags and head back home, where other little ones wait.
When the official pickup time is over, around 1:15, volunteers gather any remaining food and head out to homes in the community, delivering to families they know need assistance
“It’s fun, something to do in the summer, and a chance to hang out with your friends,” says Reagan, a rising eighth grader whom Greer has dubbed one of their local “hosts.”
Greer said the need for the feeding program is strong. Poverty is heavy in the Piedmont area, and many people have lost jobs recently. Rent used to be very low, but lately many of the families are being displaced as landlords fix up the homes—and increase rent prices. Some families have been forced to leave or find roommates because they cannot afford the higher rent.
It just makes him and the other church volunteers that much more determined to do their part to help.
“God called me to it,” said Hollis, a daily volunteer who first brought the idea for the food program to Greer—and to Piedmont UMC.
A longtime hunger advocate, Hollis posted a message on Facebook six years ago seeking a place with a sink, trashcan, water source and tables that might be willing to host a food ministry. Greer, who was in his first year at Piedmont at the time, replied back within minutes—Piedmont UMC was in.
“I come because this is the avenue Christ has given us,” Stranger said. Her husband is a pastor in community, and they try to do all they can to meet whatever need is out there. “We just say yes.”
Many of those who come to the summer feeding program join them for church on Sunday morning or get plugged into Wednesday night youth group or the church’s vacation Bible school programs. Greer said they advertise heavily on Facebook and through flyers at the local food bank, but word of mouth has been most effective.
The young “hosts,” Reagan and Aubrey, stuff their trash into garbage cans, hug the volunteers goodbye and collect their belongings.
“We’ll be back tomorrow,” one of them tells the littlest.
Then the foursome heads off into the hot afternoon, their bellies full and their giggles echoing behind them as they go.
Greer just watches—and smiles. It’s church in action, and he is grateful for the opportunity to help.