Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories about congregations responding to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s call to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” The call to grow in evangelism, discipleship, servanthood and diversity was adopted by the 2008 General Assembly and renewed by the 2010 General Assembly. — Jerry L. Van Marter

What started out as a one-time holiday gesture for Rabun Gap Presbyterian Church in north Georgia has become an eagerly embraced ministry that serves the community and fuels growth for the church.

“We were looking to do something at Christmas (in 2004), but we actually thought there were so many efforts at Christmas that when everybody forgot about people in February, it would be more needed,” said the Rev. Don Barber, pastor of Rabun Gap. 

The church first distributed food in February of 2005, and the response told members that this was a much-needed service. Rabun Gap began distributing food quarterly and in 2008, when the economy took a turn for the worse, the effort became monthly.

“We saw a spike from 200 families to 400 in October of 2008,” Barber said.

The church distributes about 13,000 pounds of food from its food bank each month to 275-400 needy families in the county.

“We also usually have a couple thousand pounds from one of our really wonderful local farmers, Osage Farms and Ricky and Melinda James,” Barber said. “This past distribution, we had 50 bushels of local-grown apples and collard greens and squash and tomatoes and all sorts of things that they do on their own as a donation to help us help their neighbors.”

Food distributions alternate between Wednesdays one month and Saturdays the next so that those who do work minimally can still have a chance to come. This schedule also makes it easier for volunteers and allows more people to be involved.

“Our church members who are working and children and teens who are in school can come help on Saturdays and our retired or self-employed people can do the work on Wednesdays,” Barber said, adding that some people come to every distribution.

It takes about 70 people to help unload the truck, count the items and figure out how much they have to give to each person. They try to base the number on about 325 families in warmer months and 400 in the cold months, but Barber said they almost always run out no matter how close they think they will be.

Cars start lining up at 6:00 a.m. for distribution that starts at 9:00 a.m.

“There’s always three or four or five cars that are just heartbreaking to come up at the end when everything is gone,” he said.

Food recipients and volunteers alike also get a hot bowl of cheese grits, thanks to Barber, who worried one January about cold weather keeping volunteers away. He decided to come early and make grits for his volunteers to help keep them warm, but a miscalculation turned the gesture into a tradition.

“Grits are like loaves and fishes, they kind of grow and grow and grow and you can feed a multitude on grits, so I had all these extra pots of grits and I just started putting them in these Styrofoam bowls with plastic spoons and going to the cars in line of people waiting for food,” Barber said. “I had people roll down their window or have to open their door because it wouldn’t roll down and they said ‘Oh thank you, I haven’t had anything to eat since yesterday.’ Now we have this whole grits brigade of folks and ladies who take the grits, it’s not just for volunteers but we take grits to every single car waiting in line.”

Thanks to this need and desire to help the community, it’s not hard to find support for the program. The session of Rabun Gap has voted to continue doing the food distribution every month in 2011.

“That’s a significant financial commitment as well as volunteer commitment,” Barber said. “It’s just very important to our congregation and it’s their food distribution and it’s really been amazing how that has impacted the community.”

And that impact isn’t limited to the families helped. The program has energized church members, local businesses, churches and others.

“The Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School, which is one of the only Presbyterian-affiliated boarding schools in the country, is across the street from our church, and the students and faculty are coming to help,” Barber said. “It has really not just energized our congregation but expanded the community of faith around us.

“You can look out and see Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, African-American, Korean, Taiwanese, Chinese, Bahamian, all working together with good old boys and girls from Georgia, so it’s really been a wonderful experience.”

The Rev. Ken Meeks, general presbyter for Northeast Georgia Presbytery, has noticed another impact of the program on Rabun Gap Presbyterian.

“This church has really taken off in the last five years. I think six or seven years ago they would average 25 or 30 in worship and I think they’re consistently over a hundred in worship every Sunday now,” he said. 

While Meeks credits Barber and his leadership as well as a dynamic music program with a great deal of that, he thinks there is more to it.

“I think the food distribution has been part of what has been key to the growth of this church over the past couple of years,” Meeks said. “I think part of what we see with the missional church is when you respond to needs in your community, that connects with what can attract you to people who are looking for a church that has a sense of outreach.”

Rabun Gap has been a resource to other churches in the presbytery. At least two have visited the church and begun doing their own distributions based on those conversations.

“I think one of the neat things for us that other churches could get excited about is it’s such a different personal form of mission. Instead of sending a check to a group somewhere around the world, it’s hands on,” Barber said. “Our people know how much is on the truck, how much it costs for that load of food. They touch it, they feel it, they count it, they sort it and then they put it in a person’s car in need so there is the high-touch side of it that is something that is very life changing.”