One Meal at a Time
Church goes to court to defend lunch program
Dawn Seaman says walking into her church at lunchtime is a little like walking into an episode of Cheers: “Everybody knows your name.”
“Maybe people are lonely, or have addictions, or are struggling to stay afloat, but they come here for an hour, and everybody knows their name. They feel loved,” says Seaman, pastor of Community Church of Keyport (RCA) in Keyport, New Jersey.
She’s talking about the people who come for the Bayshore Lunch Program, which serves a free lunch in Community Church’s fellowship hall on weekdays. The lunch program is one of two nonprofits that shares both a building and a close partnership with the church. The other is the Keyport Ministerium Food Pantry.
Community Church is small—when Seaman took the pulpit in 2012, worship services had between 25 and 30 attendees. But God is doing big things through its partnerships with nonprofits. In September 2015, the food pantry served more than 260 families.
“I’m a big believer in small churches finding other nonprofits to partner with,” Seaman says. “Partnership has been key to our success in outreach.”
It is no coincidence that both of Community Church of Keyport’s partners focus on feeding people.
“We have a lot of people choosing between eating and their medication,” Seaman says. “If you’re on a fixed income—Medicare or Social Security, for example—it’s certainly not going to go as far here as in other parts of the country.”
Monmouth County, where Community Church is located, has been under increasing financial strain since the Great Recession. According to the New Jersey Department of Human Services, the number of households in Monmouth on food stamps increased by 62.5 percent between January 2008 and January 2015.
Yet the city of Keyport didn’t think the church should be feeding the area’s hungry. In 2014, the city tried to shut down the lunch program. The city’s planning board questioned everything from whether fried food would be prepared on the premises, to whether food would be eaten outdoors, to whether a church should be feeding people at all.
“They said, ‘Soup kitchens are not what churches do.’ So we had to get a lawyer and testify before a judge that this is what churches do,” Seaman says.
Although the hearing was stressful, Seaman also saw it as an opportunity: “It was a chance to witness to our town about what a church believes in and what our faith looks like. That was a moment where I really saw God at work.”
The planning board ruled in favor of the church. And rather than shutting down, the lunch program has expanded, going from serving lunch three days a week to five.
The church has expanded, too. It now welcomes about 85 people to worship on Sundays. Some come because they “want to be a part of a church that does what we do for the community,” says Seaman. And many, she adds, “come to our food pantry or our lunch program, get to know us, and find their way to church.”
Welcoming these newcomers has meant asking some tough questions, and Seaman thinks that’s good.
“We’ve had to learn what it really means to be a welcoming church,” she says. “Every church wants to be welcoming, but what does that look like when the people coming in the door have mental illness, addictions, are struggling financially, or aren’t from the same culture?”
Find ideas on how to love and care for the needs of your neighborhood at www.rca.org/localmission.
Thank God for the witness of Community Church of Keyport as it stood in favor of the lunch program.
Help feed other people struggling with hunger. Donate online at www.rca.org/feedone.
[Photo by Bob Busch]