Feeding mouths, feeding souls

Ministry helps Upstate hungry — no matter what

By Jessica Connor

GRAY COURT — You might not know it by the food-laden plastic bags their clients gratefully carry out, a new light in their eyes.

You might not see the Lord behind the canned goods and the cuts of meat and the bakery-fresh loaves these men and women take away, scurried home to hungry families eager for new bounty in tough times.

But in upper Laurens County, in a tiny industrial community called Gray Court, exists a food ministry that really isn t about food at all.

It s about feeding the spirit, about shining the light of Christ into their community.

And six years in, they seem to be making a difference.

This Thanksgiving, as families across South Carolina gather to express gratitude for their many blessings in the risen savior, many of their neighbors are giving thanks for the Laurens County Food Ministry, which has been keeping them from going hungry physically and spiritually.

Housed at Green Pond United Methodist Church, but staffed with volunteers from nearby United Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, Church of God and Presbyterian churches, the Laurens County Food Ministry helps hungry people no matter what. And in serving, they aim to reach the real root of their hunger: that universal craving in each of us for Christ.

Sometimes you can see people are really hungry, but I have found filling the soul is going to fill that stomach, said Tish Bedenbaugh, director of the food ministry. They come there with problems, and we sit, we listen, we cry with them. If they don t have a Bible, we give them that Bible. If they don t have a church, we put them in a church.

After all, Bedenbaugh said, the shortest verse in the Bible is Jesus wept.

If He can weep, we can, too, she said.

That heartfelt sharing is the crux of the food ministry s mission “ to feed people no matter where they live, what their plight and how they got there. Every Monday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. since October 2005, the food ministry has opened their doors to provide food to the needy and to pray with them.

The ministry started thanks to the vision of the late Barbara Weinel, who loved ones say was deeply frustrated one day after the food bank she had volunteered at hung up a sign that said no longer serving Laurens County because of financial reasons.

That wasn t good enough for Weinel, member of Green Pond UMC, who knew firsthand the hundreds and thousands of hungry people in upper Laurens County. Weinel immediately went to her pastor, determined to start a food ministry at Green Pond that would help the needy no matter where they lived.

But despite her determination, Weinel was also battling a hardship of her own: cancer. She was only able to work at her food ministry a couple of weeks before she had to step down and find a replacement.

Enter Bedenbaugh, who Weinel handpicked to take the reins.

Bedenbaugh had no prior experience in a food ministry, but she was willing.

I said, ˜Well, God, here I am; show me the way, Bedenbaugh said. ˜I don t know what to do, and you are going to have to lay the plan out for me. But whatever you want to be there, that s the way it will be.

Six years later, she s still there serving as the Lord wishes, with no plans to slow down. Bedenbaugh and the dozens of committed volunteers do all they can to help others. Sometimes they give out all the food in their storage house and wonder where more will come from; God always provides.

The volunteers approach their ministry from their clients perspective “ how would they want to be treated if they needed to go to a food ministry? People seem to appreciate that serving with, not to mentality.

Client Clement Jones said he is a Navy veteran who has little income. He said without Laurens County Food Ministry, he d have a difficult time. But most importantly, he appreciates how the ministry combines the spiritual and the physical.

I m just glad it s in the Christian way, Jones said.

Jones isn t alone. Known for its industrial roots, today upper Laurens County has few if any industrial plants, all closed years ago “ before the recession. The economic downturn made things even worse.

The first time Laurens County Food Ministry opened its doors, it served four clients. Last year, they served nearly 5,000 clients representing nearly 12,000 individuals. Bedenbaugh said they have seen an increase in 2011 of almost 40 percent above last year. The day the Advocate visited, the waiting room was packed with people waiting to receive food.

Doris Adair, food bank manager, is a member of Green Pond UMC who has helped the food ministry for three years. She said the experience has dynamically changed her. At first, recently retired, she felt like her service was a duty. But as soon as she got in there and started to serve, it suddenly wasn t a duty anymore. It was about being helpful, about assisting any way she could.

There is a need out there, and I feel a part of it now, Adair said, pointing out that the interdenominational ministry is all about serving Christ regardless of any differences they might have on the surface. It s not just a Methodist thing “ just coming together with them, there is no difference. We are all there working for the same goal and we just want to be helpful.

Shannon Weinel, daughter-in-law of the late founder, said she remembers how frustrated Barbara Weinel was when her Laurens County neighbors suddenly couldn t get food help.

She was a pioneer for them, said Weinel, a member of Fountain Inn Presbyterian, noting how pleased her mother-in-law would be to see the ecumenical Christian spirit at work in the ministry today.

Ann Owens, a member of Beulah Baptist, said she was drawn to the food ministry because she naturally enjoys helping others. She, too, loves working alongside other Christians without regard for denomination. It s all about the service, for her and the rest of the team.

You see people in need and you want to reach out and help if you can, Owens said. The Bible tells us if you see someone hungry, you re supposed to feed them, that whatever you do unto others you do unto Him.

Sue Herbert, member of Gray Court Church of God, said volunteering at the food ministry is a good way to give back. She remembers all too well those years when she was struggling, and people helped her.

When I was a young, single mother, it would have been nice to have some help like this, Herbert said, noting that serving alongside the other ministry volunteers feels like a family.

Bedenbaugh couldn t agree more.

It s not all about food, she said. You can go to the trashcan and get food. This is about the spirit.

Support for the food ministry comes from a variety of sources. Green Pond UMC hosts a fish fry twice a year, with all proceeds going to the ministry. Individuals and businesses give donations, plus they are part of the Bi-Lo boosters program. The day the Advocate visited, the ministry received a $9,500 check from the Bi-Lo on Fairview Road in Simpsonville. They also get donations from Grainger and from Belk s Charity Days.

The food ministry is a U.S. Department of Agricultur
e agent, so they must follow strict guidelines. But they also do non-USDA ministry.

We would never turn anyone away, Bedenbaugh said. Counties do not make any difference. If you are from Spartanburg County and you need food, we won t say, ˜We are in Laurens County and we can t help you.

They buy their food for a maintenance fee of 19 cents a pound from Harvest Hope food bank in Greenville, where they also get free bread and sweets, as well as their free USDA food.

Rev. Michelle Cockcroft, pastor of Green Pond UMC, said she is inspired each week by the faithfulness of the volunteers as they demonstrate in concrete ways the love and grace of God.

And Bedenbaugh said the only way to reveal the heart of the ministry is through Scripture.

Jesus says in my Bible, ˜Feed my sheep, and that s the only way to explain this, Bedenbaugh said. We also want to share with other people, ˜Honey, you re not alone. We are all one step away (from where you are). It s not just mouth food but spiritual food. That s what we re trying to give to them.

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