A large sign at Hughes UMC in Wheaton uses arrows to direct people to the go inside the building for church; to go into the sanctuary.
But recently, the church has turned inside-out. Neighbors are encountering Christ in the parking lot as church members feed several hundred people a week.
“We believe Jesus will be here with us,” said Hughes pastor, the Rev. Diana Wingeier-Rayo. “We are no longer an inside church. We provide food for the hungry, water for the thirsty, clothes for the naked, and help for the needy. Hughes has come out of the building.”
The feeding program, in some ways, echoes the biblical miracle of the loaves and fishes. The congregation started off with a $1,000 grant from the Baltimore-Washington Conference to provide food to low income neighbors, many of them Latino, during the coronavirus pandemic.
That money disappeared quickly and the Rev. Gerry Green, superintendent of the Greater Washington District, provided more funds. As news of Hughes’ outreach spread, so did the need. The United Methodist Committee on Relief offered a $10,000 grant to help support eight families for three months. And things really turned around when Wingeier-Rayo reached out to Nancy Navarro of the Montgomery County Council, who was able to provide $30,000 and help the church create partnerships with individuals and agencies that provide food in bulk.
On Thursdays, 100 families drive through the parking lot and pick up canned goods and other food and supplies. But Tuesday mornings are like a well-prepared military campaign. Traffic patterns on Georgia Avenue change, police provide assistance, and an elaborate food-distribution is set up that keeps everyone safe in this season of COVID-19.
This safety, necessitated by a desire to contain the spread of the coronavirus, means that cars line up and pop open their trunks. Volunteers wearing masks and gloves, and in some cases face shields, place boxes of vegetables in the car. The driver then pulls forward and bread, milk, eggs, ham, and cheese are placed in the trunk and the car drives off.
The families enrolled in this UMCOR outreach have special tickets and receive baskets full of even more groceries. At regular intervals, a whistle blows and all the volunteers break to wash their hands and put on fresh gloves.
In an hour, the church can serve more than 300 cars. They also distribute food to people who walk up off the street and deliver food to the homes of many families who have notified the church that they are suffering with COVID-19.
This outreach is an answered prayer. It changes those who receive the food and those who distribute it, Wingeier-Rayo said.
“We believe Jesus will be here with us,” said Luisa Gomez, a member of Hughes. Handing out milk and eggs to more than 500 people as they drove past, she became teary-eyed at one moment, saying, “I feel God’s love in this. I pray these people can feel the love we have for them.”
Mark Weaver, another Hughes member, handed out boxes of vegetables in the summer heat. It was hard work, he admitted. “But the people are very gracious,” he said. “We can do this together. It’s a blessing we can do this.”
Wingeier-Rayo is convinced that this response to the needs of the community, especially the Latino community that lives around the church in Wheaton, holds the key to the future of the church. Her conviction has made her bold and she is not afraid to invite people to give.
She watches as the 40 White members who gather online for worship at 10 a.m. and the 60 Latino members who gather at 11 a.m., begin to embrace a future of outreach and service. Being out in the community has made the number of people who gather on Facebook for worship and Bible study grow.
“A lot of people are hurting right now,” the pastor said. “We’re doing a new kind of evangelism. We’re sharing Jesus by caring for people in moments like this. We might have been a dying church, but now we are alive in our neighborhood.”