Donna Thomas moved to St. Cloud, Minnesota in March of 2020, two weeks before everything shut down across the country. That wasn’t about to stop her from finding needs in her new community and activating other Christians to make a difference.
Planting Seeds of Local Ministry
As a passionate gardener, Donna had been on the lookout for a community garden plot in St. Cloud. A 20’x20’ lot opened up at a huge community garden not far from her home.
“One day I was planting, and one of the volunteers came by and said, ‘All these gardens are very large, you might not want to plant things so close together.’” A response blossomed out of nowhere. “I told him, ‘I don’t plan on eating it all, I plan on giving it away.’ This is how I got involved with community outreach at our church.”
Small Things with Great Love
Donna and her husband began to worship and serve at Hope Covenant Church, a church of about 200 people. Hope Covenant is a multi-generational congregation close to a university.
When they first began attending, the church’s outreach emphasis was more global. Donna approached the church staff with an idea. “What if we contact the gardeners in the congregation and gather fresh produce to give away to help food insecure families?”
The church wanted to encourage the congregation to think of missions both global and local, and Donna’s ideas were enthusiastically embraced. In June 2020, the People-to-People Ministry was born, and Donna became its coordinator.
The variety of individuals who came for the monthly fresh produce giveaway shared one common thread, they were all in the neighborhood of the church. By keeping the giveaway small and local, the team was able to do more than provide food. They were able to form relationships and care for the spiritual and emotional needs of their neighbors.
Senior citizens who were already on a tight, fixed income prior to the pandemic found themselves more lonely and more vulnerable to developing worsening mental health symptoms. Food insecure single parents and veterans on campus had less access to readily available meals. Both groups found fresh food and connection through the Hope Covenant. Low-income and zero-income residents in apartment buildings in the neighborhood were able to access fresh, free produce. When international students came to receive produce, they were able to learn about our vegetables and how to prepare them.
It turned out there weren’t enough gardeners in the congregation to sustain a monthly fresh produce giveaway, but there were people who were passionate about nutrition and people with a heart for helping people get food. “We couldn’t grow enough to give away,” Donna shared. So, the congregation rallied to reach out for donations from other local growers, local business owners, and some big box stores.
Forty to fifty families now benefit from Hope Covenant’s food giveaways. There are other ministries in town providing food for area residents, some much larger and open 24/7. Hope Covenant’s mission is not to match or compete with these other ministries. Their mission is to help out those within their reach through the love of Christ.
“It was Mother Teresa who said, ‘Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love,’” Donna shared. “The person on the receiving end doesn’t care how big our church is, they know they’re going to have fresh food this week. To them it’s huge.”
Beyond the Growing Season
The growing season is short in Minnesota, and about the time the final crops were ready for harvest, Donna met the folks at Backwards Bread Company. The team at Backwards Bread makes loaves of Dana bread (“dana” is sanskrit for “generosity”) available for whatever price you can afford. Donna asked if they would like to partner, and they agreed enthusiastically. A new ministry opportunity emerged in place of the fresh produce giveaway: soup and bread.
“Who doesn’t make soup in Minnesota?” Donna said, laughing.
Congregation members loved the idea. People made soup and put it into 1 gallon Ziploc bags, froze it, then stored it in the church kitchen. Then, the team invited neighbors and people who had come for produce over the summer to choose from the variety of soups they made and take home a loaf of bread from Backwards Bread. They offered three bread and soup giveaways over the winter.
Samaritan’s Purse, Over There and Here
One of the goals of the church was to involve the whole congregation in local ministry rather than just a few members on the ministry team. The church has long participated in the Samaritan’s Purse Christmas Shoebox campaign. This year, they committed to both global participation and the adoption of six local families.
There is a population of children struggling with homelessness, or children in transition, in the area who may live in the tent community, in cars, or on someone else’s couch. Two family liaisons through the St. Cloud local school district connected the church with these families in need and were able to provide them with bags full of clothing and other necessities.
Bread, Soup, and Easter Eggs
Coming up for Easter, the church will offer another bread and soup giveaway, this time paired with an Easter Egg kit. The kit will include 24 plastic eggs with wrapped candies as well as a children’s book on the Easter story. The school liaisons are going to invite their families to pick up a kit, and the same families the church served through the Samaritan’s Purse campaign are already very excited to receive the Easter egg kit.
“These families are not going out buying plastic eggs and filling them with expensive chocolates. Many of them might not have the energy to take them to an Easter egg hunt,” Donna shared.
Bloom (and Serve) Where You’re Planted, Together
“Many local families can’t get out the door, not just because of COVID, but because of health issues,” said Donna. “Sometimes they have to decide between buying insulin and buying food. People who are financially insecure aren’t ‘out there,’ they are in our own communities too.”
Community is everything in St. Cloud. That importance of interconnectedness in the area extends to social services. Donna believes Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17 isn’t just for individuals, it’s for the churches. That’s why Donna recently started an organization to unify the churches in her neighborhood. This organization provides an opportunity to share what each church is doing and cross-promote outreach efforts. It serves as a catalyst for new energy to do the work of Christ in St. Cloud.
“It’s the philosophy of Ubuntu: I am because we are,” Donna said. “It’s important that we take the posture that ‘We’re all in this together.’”