As a ministry to help neighbors in need, God’s Helping Hands had its start in a downtown church in Greensboro, N.C. When that church closed, volunteers began searching for another home.
“We wanted something on the bus route to make it easy for people to get to us,” says Joan Hipp, the volunteer leader. “But everywhere we went, doors were shut in our faces. We either had to hire our own security guards, or we had to be out by 1, or we couldn’t use the refrigerator or stove. We couldn’t find a church willing to take us in.”
Until one congregation stepped forward.
With a small membership, Groometown United Methodist sits in a rural pocket between Greensboro and High Point. Seed corn grows behind the sanctuary. Cows graze in a pasture across the street.
When the church offered two rooms for the food pantry and a kitchen for serving meals, Joan worried about housing the ministry so far off the beaten track.
“We thought people would never find us,” she says.
But in 2009, God’s Helping Hands moved to Groometown and opened for clients that summer. Since then, this grassroots ministry has provided weekly food and fellowship – and new life to the rural church that gave it a home.
One Door Closes, One Opens
On a recent Friday, a steady stream of cars fills Groometown’s gravel parking lot. Inside the church, volunteers hand out grocery bags filled with canned goods. In the dining room, men and women visit over plates of baked ham.
On the ministry’s first day at Groometown, 25 families showed up. By the end of the year, more than 2,280 families had received help. Volunteers from the congregation and community served nearly 3,000 meals.
Today, God’s Helping Hands just keeps growing. A $100,000 grant from The Duke Endowment supports the work.
“Just about any day you can come out here and there are cars in the lot and people inside getting something ready,” says the Rev. Nick Scandale, Groometown’s pastor. “It used to be we’d have a few people here for worship on Sunday morning, and that was it. Now this little church in the country is a hub of activity.”
God’s Helping Hands began at Asbury United Methodist Church in urban Greensboro as a street ministry for the homeless. Volunteers ran a food pantry, and then decided to add a hot meal.
Joan, a member of Asbury, volunteered alongside Alan Groome, a member of Groometown.
“When Asbury closed, they were going to close the food pantry, too, but Alan and I just couldn’t see it,” Joan says. “So we started praying and looking around for a new place.”
The Rev. John Jolly was Groometown’s pastor at the time. The church had plenty of empty space, he told them. But Alan remembers having doubts.
“I even had a little argument about it with God,” he says. “I said, ‘Lord, we’ve got homeless people and senior citizens and people who ride the bus. Can’t you give us someplace that will work better?’ But God will let you argue with Him until the cows come home. So here we are today.”
The Meatloaf Miracle
With volunteer help from several area congregations, God’s Helping Hands serves about 100 families a week.
Joan and Alan do most of the prep work and cooking. They grill chicken breasts. Bake lasagna. Boil big pots of spaghetti.
They have plenty of stories to swap. There’s the “meatloaf miracle,” when Joan made enough to serve 120 – and 160 showed up. With one pan left, she told a volunteer to make it stretch. They’d just have to apologize when the meatloaf ran out.
“When she came back to me at the end of lunch, she said, ‘Joan, I have five pieces left and no one went without.’ There was no way that pan could have served that many more,” Joan says, still shaking her head in disbelief.
Another time, on a bitter cold Friday, she got word of seven clients who needed blankets. The very next morning, a woman called to offer 12.
Pastor Scandale says he’ll sometimes go to the food pantry and be alarmed to find the shelves bare. Before he can worry, a truck will pull up with donations.
Some clients come every week for help.
Samantha, 45, drives from Greensboro to supplement the groceries she can afford to buy on her own. She stays for the meal because she feels welcomed.
“Life would be lonelier without lunches here,” she says. “The food is always good and the people are always friendly.”
Mary, 65, started coming after finishing cancer treatment. Friends told her that God’s Helping Hands would give her the nutritious food she needed to get stronger.
“I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have the hot meals here,” she says wringing her thin hands.
Expecting the Unexpected
Fourteen clients have joined Groometown. Others are sending their children and grandchildren to the church. For the first time in years, the Sunday service includes a children’s sermon.
In the beginning, Pastor Scandale says, a few members wondered why kids were coming on Sundays, being a little disruptive in the pews.
“But now you’ll see them sitting with our older members,” he says. “And during children’s time in the service, everybody looks forward to hearing the wild questions and seeing how Pastor Scandale handles them.”
The church is even getting ready to offer Confirmation classes.
Most exciting to him? Not knowing what’s going to happen from one day to the next.
“Colleagues will look at me and ask, ‘What are you doing out there to make all this work so well?’” he says. “And I tell them, ‘It’s not us, it’s God’s helping hands. We’re just staying out of the way.’”
Learn more about God’s Helping Hands: 336.392.3783; firstname.lastname@example.org
Kristen R. Richardson-Frick