Recent questions, asked of us who are candidates preparing to become members of Session, triggered my willingness to tell more about earlier experiences through our church. Session candidates were given thought provoking questions to help us think more deeply about our capabilities and interests. One that stood-out to me was: “Where do you find meaning in your life and at GPPC?” My response was – “helping others, especially the needy.”
Continuing to reflect upon my answer, the recent Labor Day observance renewed memories of a congregational effort that rewarded both the recipients with assistance and those who offered help. GPPC along with about sixteen other churches or organizations initiated an early breakfast for labor pool workers for four years until a more viable approach became possible. The Labor Pool Breakfast Program began as a result of a study to determine local hunger needs by a GPPC committee collaborating with Second Presbyterian who had undertaken a similar investigation.
GPPC’s study by the Vocation & Mission Committee revealed that Richmond had a good support system in place to serve needy persons, but there was an exception. Many homeless and working poor who were employed via labor pools went to work without breakfast. Furthermore, the organizations that could provide free meals did not have the ability to provide food service early enough to meet their needs. Labor pool workers must be ready for pick-up or job selection by 6:00 a.m.
After exploring several options, it was found that providing a bag breakfast, a box of juice and possibly a coffee, would allow individuals to quickly grab a bag and a drink as they headed toward the pick-up site. Of course, it would have to be provided early enough so they could reach their starting point before 6:00 a.m. The director of a downtown thrift shop, “Pennies for Heaven,” 2 East Broad, volunteered to provide space in the front of her store to serve this type breakfast and agreed to provide and prepare the coffee. With a commitment of support from four churches, the bag breakfast program began Monday, August 7, 2000. Twenty-five guests came and were greeted by two volunteers. One was the thrift shop operator and the other a retired Baptist minister, who baked fresh biscuits for guests.
Who were these people that came in for a bag, juice, and coffee between 5:30 and 6:00 each weekday morning? They were men and women representing all races and probably most religions, whose age ranged from 20 to 60+. Some were absolutely homeless, some lived on the street, others had some type of shelter. Many, if not most, were the working poor, who saw this as an opportunity to stretch a meager wage. Some were substance abusers. Some had adequate clothing. Others wore only a t-shirt and jeans with temperatures in the 20s. Regardless of their status, they were universally grateful and polite.
Interestingly, the volunteers were anxious and grateful for the opportunity to help these individuals who were experiencing difficulties. Each month there were jobs for at least 16 volunteers: one or two shoppers at the food bank and discount warehouses, one or two to set-up the bag packing in the church kitchen, six to eight to pack the bags so that there would be at least 100 breakfasts each morning, and three or four to serve the 100 to 150 guests from 5:30 to 6:00 a.m.
The first few months GPPC volunteers made fresh baked goods to place in the bags. Freshly made ham biscuits, muffins & pastries provided a tastier breakfast and it allowed some volunteers to help, who did not wish to do other jobs – like getting up early to be at the site by 5:15 in the morning. However, there was a continuing fluctuation in the number of guests. Although the numbers increased steadily, the exact number to plan for couldn’t be determined precisely. One day there would be more bags than guests and, in a day, or so there would be many more guests than prepared bags. Thus, bag content had to consist of non-perishables – boxed juice, breakfast bars, fruit cup and crackers. When about a dozen churches were committed to supporting the breakfast program, a year-round master schedule was implemented, so everyone could plan in advance and secure the volunteers and supplies to keep it going.
This program ended June 1, 2004 when Freedom House and the Salvation Army completed plans to provide a sit-down hot breakfast beginning at 5:15 each morning at Grace & Foushee Streets. Records show that eighty-six (86) members of our congregation participated in some way to make this program possible. Many people helped multiple times. This work was a joy that demonstrated Christ’s teaching through their application in today’s world.
Reflecting upon these experiences causes us to think about Abraham Maslow’s work about the hierarchy of human needs. At the bottom of the pyramid are the homeless and hungry striving to survive. At the top are volunteers, who passed through lower levels of needs and now seek fulfillment that can come from helping others. In a sense, each group is helping the other. Each has a fundamental need that the other can help to serve.
“. . . in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40)
Tom Hughes is a longtime member and elder who is rejoining our Session this month.