Feeding the Heart, Body and Soul

June 01, 2012

Since 1994 senior warden Mike Gale has attended Messiah-St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church where, as he puts it, he’s “done about anything and everything that I thought needed to be done.” That makes him a perfect lay leader for the parish on Chicago’s South Side because it, too, has done about anything and everything that needs to be done to help people in and around Avalon Park.

For a small congregation—about 150 members and an average Sunday attendance of about 60 to 70—Messiah-St. Bartholomew’s leaves a big footprint, particularly with its feeding program and its exponential growth.

“When we first started doing the pantry several years ago, it was only once a month and we were feeding 30 families,” said Gale, who has served in almost every leadership position at the church. “Now we operate the food pantry once a week and we’re feeding a total of 190 families.”

Gale said numerous parishioners come in at 5:30 or 6 am on Fridays and stay until about 10 am, helping set up and distributing the food.

“The pantry starts at 8 am, but you have people lined up by 7 o'clock in the morning,” Gale said. “In the winter months we open the church and let them come in and get coffee while they wait. Our church is in Avalon, but people come to the pantry from are a much broader geographical area.”

The Ven. Elaine Bellis, who is archdeacon for the Diocese of Chicago and assists at Messiah-St. Bartholomew’s at least once a month, said “the parish has always been known for its outreach programs.” She said the number of people coming to the church for food has ballooned because of the hard economic times.

“Food for the feeding program, which started at least 15 years ago, comes from the Greater Chicago Food Depository,” Bellis said, “and is administered through our development center. Parishioners volunteer to distribute the food and bag it. If there are shortages of items, parishioners donate turkeys and hams, because sometimes you can't get everything from the food depository. And the parish has food drives, particularly at Christmas and Thanksgiving.”

Many of the parish’s outreach ministries operate through the development center, which began in 1995 as the Messiah-St. Bartholomew Jubilee Center. In 2005, the vestry voted to adopt a new organization, and a new board, and to change the name from Jubilee Center to Messiah-St. Bartholomew Development Center. Today the center is governed by a board of directors, and the parish remains actively involved in the center’s many programs, which target families in need. It is a non-profit community organization under the auspices of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago.

Phillip Mantle, director of the development center, said “parishioners are very involved. There are 27 volunteers from the church that are involved weekly at the center.”

Parishioners are particularly involved in the center’s community garden, which is located on 87th St., about six blocks from the church and development center offices. It was begun in 2010 as a way to provide members of the community with fresh produce. The center has a partnership with the Aztlan Community Industries to use space and maintain the garden both for beautification and feeding people. Faith in Place has been a leader in finding in-kind resources and funding to support the garden.

Mantle said the garden has eighteen raised beds and several lower planting beds. The 2011 growing season produced collard greens, tomatoes, herbs, melons, potatoes, beets and flowers. In August 2011, a butterfly garden was added. The garden has become a place of spiritual reflection, and a walking track has been installed within the beds.

The garden is in bloom April–December, and Mantle estimates that last summer more than 250 pounds of tomatoes were grown and given to some 70 households.

The development center received two small grants in 2011 to maintain the garden. Two young adults were hired to work three days weekly between May through September, and volunteers include six members of Messiah-St. Bartholomew’s and four members of the larger community.

Mantle said the development center, which has numerous partners, is exploring the possibility of working with the University of Illinois to build a greenhouse. That way, he said, “we can work 12 months a year. The problem is our growing season is so short.”

In celebration of the community garden and as outreach to the community, Messiah-St. Bartholomew will move its services outdoors on Sunday, July 15 at 10:15 am when there will be a Garden Mass (all jazz, Mantle said) held in the garden. A Harvest Mass is being planned for September 16th at 9:15 a.m. All are welcome.

In addition to the feeding program and the community garden, the parish is actively involved in programs that help people living with mental disabilities. Clients from the Aztlan Center, a vocational rehabilitation program that serves developmentally disabled adults, have been part of Messiah-St. Bartholomew’s outreach programs for the past fifteen years. Aztlan Center clients attend a mid-week mass and have lunch with parishioners one Wednesday per month.

“Church membership is kind of stagnant right now,” Bellis said. “It is an aging congregation, but they have new leadership and vibrant programs going on. They have a really great youth group program that meets every other Friday. They do camping, educational trips, movie night, fundraising events. They are children from the congregation and children who live in the community, and now sometimes they bring their school friends, especially for movie night.”

Bellis, who clearly loves the congregation, said the parish also has a vital Bible study, seniors group and Sunday school.

All of which is no small accomplishment, considering the parish primarily has been served by supply priests since 2007. The church is looking to hire a part-time priest, and, because the congregation is aging, is applying for grants to make the building handicapped-accessible.

The soil has been tilled; the seeds planted.