Shared from the 8/18/2019 Houston Chronicle eEdition



Christ Church Cathedral organizes rally to assemble 100,000 meals

Photos by Annie Mulligan / Contributor

The choir enters during a recent service at Christ Church Cathedral, where the congregation is challenged with providing 100,000 meals for those in need.


Nine-year-old James Nettles drops coins into a wishing well, part of Christ Church Cathedral’s efforts to raise money for a “Rally Against Hunger” event.

Annie Mulligan / Contributor

Churchgoers pose with an apple frame last Sunday to promote Christ Church Cathedral’s Rally Against Hunger.

Rev. Barkley Thompson, the dean of Christ Church Cathedral, believes that feeding the hungry is a part of being Christian.

He points to the ninth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus and his disciples found themselves in the midst of a crowd of thousands, who grew hungry and restless.

The disciples ask Jesus to turn the people away. Instead he commanded the disciples, “You give them something to eat,” Thompson explained.

“We can’t address our spiritual hunger if our stomachs are empty,” he said. “Hunger pangs take over everything.”

Thompson had that story in mind when he decided to bring church to a halt Aug. 25.

Instead of attending the usual Sunday sermon, he is asking the congregation at 1117 Texas Ave. to band together at 10 a.m. and head to work.

Their charge is creating 100,000 servings of food.

Imagine a church transformed into a factory, Thompson said. Each person will have a job that leads to the creation of non-perishable meals for six assembled into plastic bags. And those bags will pile up.

“It’s crazy and frenetic and hugely fun,” Thompson said. “There’s a role for all ages whether you’re 9 or

90. At the end of the day, we’ll have a wall of ready-made meals.”

Once completed, the meals will be distributed to individuals living in food deserts, places where resources or transportation make access to meals nearly impossible.

“Jesus is saying to us, with 100,000 people, ‘You feed them,’ ” Thompson said. “We get to be the disciples that day.”

He said that an annual “Rally Day” has become a tradition for the church. At the end of each summer, the congregation comes together to re-energize.

This year, “Rally Against Hunger” is the theme — and the name for the food-packing event.

“What is the most faithful way for us to kick off the year?” Thompson asked. “Packing meals makes the most sense.”

He’s participated in similar events before. “They’re amazing, unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” he said. “And it’s the perfect outreach project, because you tangibly see the impact once it’s finished.”

Thompson reached out to KariAnn Lessner, minister for children and families, when brainstorming about creating the meal-packing event.

“It was important for me and the rest of the cathedral that it was a local thing,” she said. “As the oldest church, and being right in the heart of Houston, it’s our responsibility to reach out to those who are within a stone’s throw of our door.”

Lessner knew just the right person to help out — and distribute the meals once they were completed — Melissa Peter, chapter founder and program coordinator of Bayou City Blessings in a Backpack.

The two women are longtime friends. Lessner’s prayer tour of the inner city significantly changed Peter’s life and set her on course to feed hungry children year-round.

In 2011, a group of women from Holy Spirit Episcopal Church were led by Lessner through areas in need in Houston.

“It was the first time I ever recall hearing the term ‘food desert,’ ” Peter said. “I was starting at the ground up. Iknew nothing about it. I was like, ‘What do you mean kids and their families can’t get to the grocery store?’ ”

She couldn’t stop thinking, putting herself in that situation, “What would it be like, not getting what I need for my kids? How could they participate in school when they’re hungry? How can this happen in Houston?”

Peter wondered how she could help —and then happened upon an article about the national organization Blessings in a Backpack. Across the U.S., volunteers with the organization pack a weekend’s worth of food for elementary school children to take home.

A year later, Peter started a local chapter, Bayou City Blessings in a Backpack.

At first, the group served 60 students at Blackshear Elementary in Houston’s Third Ward, a school encountered on the prayer tour. Volunteers committed to serving each student for three years.

“It’s a large elementary school located in a food desert,” Peter said. “There’s a lot of need in that community. Blackshear became our cornerstone.”

Now approaching its eighth year, Bayou City Blessings in a Backpack serves 1,500 students at six elementary schools. The group also extended its commitment to seven years, or the entire time a child is at an elementary school.

Food bags are delivered directly to each school and contain a variety of easy-to-prepare, healthy food options.

The donation of the 100,000 meals from Christ Church Cathedral will make a huge impact, Peter said. Some of the food will be distributed immediately, while a portion will be stored for families during school holidays and long weekends.

“It’s really a true gift,” Peter said. “We’re not having to rally our volunteers or figure out our logistics. Someone else is doing all of that.”

The meal-packing event will allow the group to extend its budget —offering more items in its usual packs or serving more students.

Peter said that Houston ranks third in the country, behind Los Angeles and New York, for the number of children living with food insecurity. She said the USDA identified around 13 food desert tracts inside Loop 610 and 70 more between 610 and Beltway 8.

“How can these kids possibly have success in school?” Peter asked. “If kids have success in school, it can change their trajectory. And they’ll know someone outside of my community cares about them.”

She believes faith is paramount to this work. “You have to be compelled to reach out to your neighbor,” she said. “I believe that comes from faith. We’re called. We’re asked to be aware and to serve our neighbors.”

Lessner said that the Cathedral is also raising $40,000 to pay for the Rally Against Hunger — or 40 cents per meal.

She is including even the youngest church members in that effort by installing a “wishing well” on campus.

Donors insert coins, and they spiral down to the bottom of the well.

“Several years ago, I saw one at a mall, and I thought, ‘If giving were that much fun, kids would be standing in line to do it,’ ” Lessner recalled. “So we bought a wishing well with that idea in mind.”

Children ask their parents for extra coins to donate. “They also look to other adults,” Lessner said with a laugh. “We’re teaching them that all of those pennies add up, that 40 cents can feed one person. We’re doing everything to put this into their hearts and minds.”

The youngest children in the cathedral will also be coloring cards for meal recipients. Students in third grade and higher are invited to serve alongside their parents.

Thompson estimates that more than 200 will volunteer to pack meals.

The church, which recently celebrated its 180th birthday and a major renovation, is looking to do more outreach projects in the future.

“Now that we’ve finished construction, it’s time to figure out what’s next,” Thompson said. “What does it look like to be in the midst of the city? We’re called to be a community of memory and of expectation. One part is looking at our history and another part is asking, ‘What is on the horizon? What is God calling us to do?’ ”

Lindsay Peyton is a writer in Houston.

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