Food bank recipients ‘also come for the love’
When Joanne Villeneuve became a follower of Christ, she asked God, “What can I do for You?”
The first thing she felt compelled to do was start a Bible study in her east-side Chaben Place neighbourhood. She soon learned some of the people coming were struggling financially just as she was.
“I didn’t realize how poor some of them were until a disabled man from the group called me one evening and said, ‘Joanne, I haven’t eaten anything in three days and I’m fainting from hunger. Can you help me?’ My eyes welled with tears, because I’ve been homeless on more than one occasion.”
Villeneuve didn’t have much in her own cupboards, so she called other members of the Bible study group and soon collected a shopping cart full of groceries for the caller.
Within a month, she had learned of several other people in the area who needed food. One man was living in his truck in a parking lot.
“I helped as much as I could,” she said. “Sometimes it was only a bowl of Kraft dinner — just enough to get them through the night.”
Clearly, more food was needed, so at her son Clifford’s suggestion, Villeneuve contacted a nearby church where Clifford had attended kids’ club. The church was College Park Covenant.
The pastor offered to approach the Saskatoon Food Bank for food that volunteers from the church would pick up every two weeks and deliver to Villeneuve’s apartment. There it was bagged for the people on her growing list.
“After a while the verse from Matthew 25 came to my mind: ‘I was naked and you clothed me,’ along with the idea to go on Kijiji to ask for clothing donations and to announce I had clothing to give away. But I wanted to give the people more than just a shirt. The thought came: When you open the door, pretend Jesus is standing beside the person knocking. He’s saying, ‘This is my buddy, what can you do for him.?’ ”
Villeneuve took the idea to heart. When kids came, she gave them something from the food bank treat box. To their parents, she offered juice or crackers.
“My clothing room (my spare bedroom) became a mini-church, but it got to be too crowded. Volunteers were coming to my apartment to bag and hand out food, and people were lined up in my apartment waiting to collect the bags.”
Eventually the food and clothing ministry was relocated to College Park Covenant Church. One member, Donna Fenton, thoroughly embraced the project and rallied volunteers.
Today, the Eastside Foodbank serves 30 people, the number the volunteers can manage, with a waiting list. Every two weeks, recipients get food supplied by the food bank, “but they also come for the love,” Villeneuve said. “We encourage them to arrive at the church at 9:30. The food arrives at 10, but part of the ministry is providing an opportunity to socialize with one another. Many of these people don’t have any family. This becomes their family. Some refer to it as ‘their church.’ ”
The scripture verse “I was a stranger and you took me in” led Villeneuve and College Park Covenant pastor Kirsten Waldschmidt to establish the Coffee Club, which alternates with food bank weeks and runs from 4:30 to 6 p.m. The format is typically a meet and greet time followed by a special event such as an outdoor picnic, indoor street hockey, a handwork project or a special meal hosted by the church. The event ends with 20 minutes of Bible study followed by a prayer time. “It they want to pray they can. If not, they can just listen. We take prayer requests and encourage participants to pray with and for one another,” Villeneuve said. The last item on the agenda is always a draw for a door prize provided by the church.
Waldschmidt is supportive of Villeneuve’s project. “Joanne and I have talked a lot about how her involvement is helping people of the congregation interact with people they might not interact with otherwise. There’s a certain amount of discomfort involved, not just within our church, but within society as a whole. People become insecure because they’re unsure how to act, how to be a friend.”
Waldschmidt says there is a desire for the church to be more engaged in the community. “It’s a long time in coming, but it’s starting to happen. We are a church in transition and learning to live into it well. We’re trying to encourage growth around the idea that effective change doesn’t come from handing out something to someone, but from building relationships with them. We’re encouraging venues and opportunities to make such relationships happen, and I know what we’re doing will have a larger impact in time.”