August 01, 2015

Moscow Mills UMC is buzzing on Thursday mornings. About 20 volunteers gather there each week to operate a food pantry. Many are members of the church, about half a dozen are members of Old Alexandria UMC, a country church on the same charge. Some are members of the United Church of Christ down the road. They all work together in assembly-line fashion that would make Henry Ford proud.

On the morning of May 21, Ralph Gray, one of the Old Alexandria volunteers, was quickly gathering various items from the food pantry shelves and assembling them into individual boxes to go out to people.

“I’ve been making boxes so long I kind of know how to do it,” he said. “I usually keep the same job.” Peggy Farris manages the crew. “Everybody here knows what they are doing,” she said. Farris orders food from the food bank in St. Louis, and two weeks later it is delivered. Sometimes there is a good selection, and sometimes there isn’t much. But local donations help a lot.

“During the week I’ll get a call from someone to come and get something for the food pantry, and that’s gold for us,” she said.

The food comes from many sources. In late May they were distributing a lot of food that had been collected by the U.S. postal worker food drive. A nearby automotive plant also collects food in an annual food drive. The local electric company provides them with a grant for money to buy food.

They get bread from a truck that makes retail deliveries. It goes into the freezer until it can be distributed. Because of health department regulations, they can only accept and distribute commercially produced food.

“Nothing homemade,” Farris said.

They also receive cash donations, and purchase food. “When we have money on hand, we can shop for deals. We’ve purchased can goods for 35 cents a can. We even got some at some at five cents a can, but we had to get 5,000 cans,” said Rev. Mark Spence.

Local church activities also support the ministry. The preschool at the church did a Stomp Out Hunger food drive. A “Souper Bowl” event at the church brought in 500 cans.

“It’s all intertwined. We try to bring everyone along so they can experience the joy of serving,” Spence said.

On days of the food distribution, the church also tries to help people make connections with other local helping organizations by providing a resource list. Spence is available for counseling.

Spence has had calls in the middle of the night from the Division of Family Services, in which he would meet with them immediately at the food pantry to provide food from someone who was leaving an abusive relationship.

“People can get in a bad situation, and we just try to give them a hand up,” Spence said. The church is so committed to the food pantry that they built an addition just to house it. They had a pledge drive, and have had fundraisers like a chicken dinner. They continue to make progress on paying it off.

Moscow Mills is Spence’s home church. He’s been pastor there for two year now. Spence didn’t mind coming back to pastor a church where they know everything about him, because he also knows a lot about the congregation, and how to connect to the community. “God knows everything about all of us,” he said.

In 2014, 10,699 people were served by the food pantry. The year before that number was 8,863. There is no salary cap, but they do keep records on how often people come, the number of people in the household, and the ages. Food is distributed according to those numbers.

Laura Cohagan does intakes for people receiving food, collecting their names, number in family, and ages. She keeps card files on everyone. They sign in when they come in, and are told the date they can come back again. People can only come once per month. She’s been doing this for seven years.

People are given prepared boxes of food, but are also allowed to pick three items from specific shelves, which include non-food products, like personal hygiene items. “People love the pick three, because they get to make a choice about something, rather than just accepting what is given to them,” Farris said. Some people have come to the church just to help with the food pantry, and are now attending worship every week.

The Moscow Mills Community Food Pantry is open to all Lincoln County residents. Because of that, they are considering changing the name to be more inclusive of the entire community.

The church has sorting and organizational activities for the food pantry set up for Saturdays, to give people who are at work through the week an opportunity to serve. The food pantry gives the church an opportunity to build partnerships that it might not have had otherwise.

“An American government class from Lindenwood University came here to serve,” Spence said. “It was an eye-opening experience for those young people to see the need in our community. We also have a 91-year-old member who has been helping here, and she said she had no idea there were this many people in need (of food assistance) in this community.”

The number of people being served by the food pantry dipped around the first of the December, but has been back up lately. Farris shows up on Thursdays around 7:30 a.m., there are already people waiting in the parking lot.

“It’s a social event for some people,” she said. By the time the food pantry opens at 9 a.m., the parking lot is full. “We sometimes get as many as 45 new people in a month,” she said. “This gets us involved in the community, and it takes everyone to make this whole system work,” Farris said.

Moscow Mills UMC was built in 1911, and like many other churches in Missouri, the basement was hand-dug about 20 years later. Lincoln County has been known as a fast growing community, and the middle school there is one of the largest in the state. The fellowship hall at the church was built in 1995. It houses the pre-school, which is filled to capacity with 60 children.

The entire staff at the church is Safe Sanctuaries certified. Spence tries to make sure every member is involved and engaged. The church averages 65 in worship, and had 198 people at its annual Christmas program last year. “We couldn’t have fit another person in this sanctuary,” he said.

Matthew 25:35 “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.”