The parking lot of the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church Tuesday morning (just a stone’s throw from Monterey) is a scene of diversity and unity: Baptists, Pentecostals, Mormons and other believers form relay lines 20 people deep that stretch into the church to quickly distribute 1,500 bags of food to needy families who have come by in hopes of a nice Thanksgiving meal.
These bags contain enough food — turkey, potatoes, corn, tortillas, beans, rice, salad, cranberry sauce and bread — to feed a family of five. They represent the fruits of a local interfaith outreach now in its sixth year, led by Bethel’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. H. H. Lusk Sr.
This important community initiative occurs prior to each Easter and Thanksgiving. Since its inception in 2008, the interfaith coalition has distributed nearly 45,000 meals. This year’s Thanksgiving event involves 15 congregations of various faiths and a few other organizations. They join together to feed those who can’t feed themselves and offer comfort in a time of need.
“There are poor people among us — all of us,” says Rev. Lusk, who has preached at Bethel for 52 years. “People are hungry; people are out of work.” He says reaching out to other faiths for help is important because “we’re all one people. We all serve the same God. We all have the same purpose.”
The Rev. Kenneth Murray of the Community Baptist Church in Pacific Grove, California, has joined this interfaith outreach for the past four years. As volunteers from various denominations assemble bags of food in the background on Monday in Rev. Lusk’s chapel, Rev. Murray notes the importance of breaking down the walls of insularity and prejudice that some people build today.
“If we stay in the walls, we’re just confined to members inside the walls,” Rev. Murray says. “But the ministry is outside the walls. The mission is outside the walls. We have to do what Jesus did.”
Some faith leaders are attending this year’s event for the first time, including the Rev. Dr. E. Wayne Gaddis Sr., president of the California Missionary Baptist State Convention, and Elder Robert N. Packer, an Area Seventy for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Rev. Gaddis, who is taking 150 of the food bags back with him to the poor in Los Angeles, says watching this interfaith group serve those in need inspires him to start similar initiatives across California.
“What’s surprising to me is to see the people working together with such joy,” Rev. Gaddis says as volunteers fill a van behind him with boxes of turkeys, all of which are supplied by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “I just want to see more of it. I’m hungry and motivated to carry it throughout the state of California — not just with the people I lead, but with people throughout the denominational work in the state.”
Elder Packer says that feeding empty stomachs is important and a great blessing to those in need, and he also notes that a far-reaching benefit of this interfaith event may be the relationships of trust being built.
“To be able to have wonderful folks come together, even though there may be doctrinal disagreements, and feel the Spirit, and most importantly feel some love for one another and feel charity for other people — does it get any better than that?” says Elder Packer, who joins several faith leaders Tuesday afternoon to deliver meals to shut-ins in Seaside. “I can’t think of anything that we can be doing in outreach that is better than accomplishing those two things.”
For the volunteers who spent part of the day Saturday and most of Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday assembling and distributing food items at Lusk’s church, it was a two-fold blessing: an opportunity to serve the poor and to learn more about their neighbors from other faiths.
“It’s been awesome,” Bethel Church member Starra Hill says of the experience working with others of goodwill. “It’s been an experience that most of us can only hope we will have. … [This interfaith effort] just shows you that when you have the same mission and belief, anything is possible.”
And those on the receiving end of these interfaith acts of generosity couldn’t agree more.
“I think it’s great,” says Shawnice from Seaside as she leaves Rev. Lusk’s church, grateful for receiving a needed meal. “God brings everybody together. He’s the originator of everything.”
And although this interfaith effort has been going for six years, Rev. Lusk hopes it’s only the beginning of good things to come.
“This is a thing I've been praying for for a long time, that the unity of the churches of God come together and do something to help the poor,” he says. “I think this is the start of a new chapter for all of us.”