By Jessica Brodie
CHARLESTON—What does a fisherman pastor do when he finds himself pastoring a small urban church in a poverty-stricken community?
He heads out in a boat, catches a bunch of fish and holds a free community fish fry.
And in the process, perhaps, he introduces those he serves to the life-saving love of Jesus.
The Rev. Nathan Smalls was appointed to Mount Carmel United Methodist Church, downtown Charleston, in July 2020. Right away, he noticed the large number of homeless and impoverished people congregating outside the abandoned homes around the church property.
“It’s considered an ‘economic eyesore,’ and the city is trying to disperse those folks, but I took it as an opportunity to do ministry,” Smalls said.
At first he would count the number of people he saw, then head to the local fast food restaurant and buy them some meals. Soon inspiration hit, and he convinced a few people at church to help him host a monthly meal giveaway, whether a drive-thru or walk-thru fish fry, grilled chicken or ribs on a barbecue, or a spaghetti dinner.
One of trustees will haul in his giant grill on a trailer, park it in the parking lot and start cooking. Smalls spreads the word in the days leading up to the event, and then on Saturday watches as hundreds line up for a meal and some community love, Jesus style.
They held their first meal in September 2020 and try to do something monthly—usually a free meal, though once it was free COVID testing and once a free clothing closet.
For the fish fry events, Smalls catches the fish himself. An avid fisherman, he loves to fish.
“The Charleston Harbor has a limit of 50 fish a day, so I had to make four trips to catch 200 fish. I cleaned then all myself and everything!” Smalls said.
It was a good chance to combine some fun with a way to love his neighbors—and model the life of Christ.
After all, Smalls said, “As a pastor, I can’t preach to hungry people. You’ve got to have a stomach full to hear me. That’s what Jesus did—Jesus fed them.”
The last community event brought more than 200 people to the church for food. Smalls hopes even more will come in the future.
Not everyone in his congregation was eager about the effort at first, questioning whether it would work or whether people would take advantage of the church. But Smalls said it’s not the church’s job to judge, just to do what they can do. A couple of people helped the first time, then a couple more. One Saturday a woman showed up with two giant containers of red, brown and yellow rice.
Now, Smalls said, “Each time we have it, we have a smorgasbord of food available to give out, and it’s all at no charge.”
He hopes other churches will hear about what they are doing and be inspired to do similar. Smalls believes all Christians are called to serve others in Jesus’s name.
“This is a way of extending ourselves,” he said.