Coronavirus has closed church facilities across the country, but Temple Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C., is not one of them.
Since mid-March, the congregation has become the site of a five-day-a-week feeding effort that has assembled, bagged and distributed more than 25,000 lunches, Pastor Michael Parnell said.
“We have not shuttered. We have been open and working, and our mission work is going on regardless of the circumstances of the larger environment around us,” he said.
Temple’s Table Feeding Ministry has generated local media coverage and helped boost the morale of church members, volunteers, organizers and those being fed. It also has demonstrated that congregations can have significant ministries in their communities during the pandemic.
“For my people it is a source of pride to know that this church, which is their church, is still out there doing God’s work,” Parnell said.
The pace and scope of that work has been driven by the limitations imposed by COVID-19, which led Temple’s Table to pivot from a twice-monthly, hot-meal-delivery program to providing bagged sandwich lunches five days a week to a variety of locations across Wake County and beyond.
The ministry was launched seven years ago by Bo Bodenstine, a Roman Catholic and then-restaurateur with a calling to feed the poor. He was drawn to Temple Baptist’s commercial kitchen, which was being used for special occasions, and to the servant spirit he found there. “I said I’m Catholic, you’re Baptist: let me and my family and your volunteers do something special here,” he recalled.
That “something special” initially was a restaurant-style, sit-down dining experience for those in need of food and fellowship. It evolved into a food delivery ministry that served 1,000 hot meals over two Sundays a month before the pandemic.
With the outbreak of coronavirus, Bodenstine learned of children going hungry without the meals they normally received at school. So on March 16 he, his 10-year-old son, two nieces and Parnell prepared sandwich meals for 500 of those kids.
Bodenstine said he has been amazed at the generosity of Temple Baptist members, both in terms of volunteerism and financial support for the ministry. “They have a heart that has backed me more than anything,” he reported.
Parnell said the ministry has been funded through donations and that the church will soon be dipping into money budgeted for the pre-pandemic, hot-meal version of the program. “As long as there is a need, we have volunteers and we have funding, we are going to keep doing this.”
Temple’s Table is staffed by 20 volunteers who meet at the church weekday mornings to assemble and distribute lunches. A total of 200 meals a day go to local women’s shelters, a county human services feeding program, a senior adult apartment complex and a Church of God congregation in a neighboring county, among other locations.
Volunteers divvy up the weekdays to promote social distancing in Temple’s Family Life Center, where sandwiches, chips and fruit are bagged.
Production reached 400 meals a day for several weeks before scaling back at the request of county and nonprofit leaders, Parnell said.
Concerned about their age and health, Temple’s Table volunteers West and Shirley Forehand scaled back their work with the ministry when the pandemic began.
But the 57-year members of Temple Baptist said they returned when they saw social distancing precautions being observed. And both felt a strong calling to return to the operation they have volunteered with since it began. Today, they participate two days a week.
“We know there are so many people who are in need of food, and it means so much to us to be in a ministry of help,” Shirley Forehand said.
“It’s such a blessing to be able to feed other people who are in need,” West Forehand added.
“I just tell myself that somebody’s going to get lunch today because I got up and went to church.”
The reaction of those receiving the deliveries is powerful to see, Parnell said, recalling the daily excitement of women’s shelter residents. “These ladies are beyond thrilled, and it’s funny because we serve them the same thing every day.”
But Temple’s Table is about more than food in so many ways, he added. The ministry meets the congregation’s need to promote the gospel through outreach and to build relationships in the community.
There are significant spiritual benefits for his church members and for volunteers from other congregations who use Temple’s spaces.
“I am trying to get the church outside of the walls,” the pastor said. “We have taken the church to the streets, and we are touching people’s lives in real ways every day.”
Despite not being a morning person, Parnell gets up early every day to help prepare the lunches. “I just tell myself that somebody’s going to get lunch today because I got up and went to church.”
Donations to Temple’s Table may be made online.