I have been to Athens, Ohio literally thousands of times in the 46 years (as of next month) that I have lived. That includes living there while "studying" at O.U.
But today was the first time I have set foot in Athens County without paying a visit to 45701land, and I enjoyed every minute of it, and didn’t miss Athens for a minute.
Pat and I drove down to the Feed My Sheep food pantry in the tiny village of Mineral, Ohio this morning. Pat’s son and daughter (ages eight and 11, respectively) also came, and Steph and Susie rode down separately with some other friends. For the last year or so, we had been hearing about it from Jacques, a man who, like all of us, is a member of First UU here in Columbus. Since his retirement, he goes down every Monday to help with stocking Feed My Sheep’s food pantry and helping to distribute full boxes to clients who are allowed to come by once a month to pick up food.
The pantry is located in a small church on St. Rt. 356, the Faith Believers’ Ministry, and they work very well with limited resources. The food pantry was floor to ceiling with food donations, and on first glance, it looks like their larders are well stocked, but once clients come in and start taking out the full boxes, you can watch the inventory go down. I packed boxes, stocked shelves, helped hand out boxes of food, and felt quite energized–physically, emotionally, and spiritually–from the experience.
I doubt that those of us of First UU and those of Faith Believers’ Ministry could be further apart theologically or socially, but that didn’t even enter into the equation today. Athens County is now the poorest county in Ohio, and many of the ones there who do have jobs have to car- and vanpool to Columbus or to Parkersburg for work that may not even exist in 90 days. There are not a lot of jobs to be had in Athens County, and even O.U., the county’s biggest employer by far, has been laying off.
Below is an article that ran in The Columbus Dispatch just before Christmas in ’07:
Worlds apart, churches share goal – Columbus, rural congregations unite to feed the poor
Columbus Dispatch, The (OH) – Friday, December 21, 2007
Author: Alan Johnson ; THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
They are so different — the tiny country church in the hills of Athens County and the big-city church that proudly calls itself a voice of liberal religion.
The entire congregation of the Faith Believers Ministry of Mineral, all 15 members, would fit in one pew of the 700-member First Unitarian Universalist Church on Weisheimer Road on the North Side.
They don’t share the same beliefs or speak the same theological language. But they are bound together by a common spiritual desire to feed the hungry and help the poor.
About 200 times in the past four years or so, Jacques Angelino has made the 90-minute trek to deliver food, clothes, toys, and school and baby supplies donated by his church in Columbus to the modest country church on Rt. 356, about 12 miles west of Athens.
Were it not for Angelino and the generosity of Unitarian Universalist churchgoers, the Feed My Sheep Food Pantry operated by Faith Believers Ministry would have closed, leaving 250 to 300 families hungry, said the Rev. Ray Ogburn Jr., pastor at the Mineral church.
"If you’ve got Jesus in your heart, you want to do the best you can do to feed the people," Ogburn said. "Right now we’re having a hard time doing that."
"We’re dealing with the issues of eating and having clothes against the cold," said the Rev. Mark Belletini, senior minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church. "That’s something that unites everybody."
This week, Angelino loaded his Toyota Corolla with 60 small hams, clothing, toys, blankets and baby supplies and delivered them to Ogburn’s church.
As economic conditions worsen in Appalachian Ohio, the need increases, Ogburn said. The church will give out as many as 110 Christmas food boxes, compared with 87 last year.
"It’s continually getting worse," he said. "If it wasn’t for Jacques’ church, we wouldn’t be able to stay open. They’ve brought so much I couldn’t begin to count it."
Back in Columbus, Belletini has watched the donations pile up in a hallway outside the church sanctuary.
"I know people here are tremendously generous. It gets almost to the place where you can’t even pass in the hallway because of all the things stacked there."
Before school began in the fall, the Unitarian Universalist Church sent down 150 backpacks loaded with school supplies.
Ogburn recently opened his mailbox and found a $200 check from a stranger in Galena. That doesn’t happen very often, he said.
"But somewhere, somehow they were in touch with the man upstairs," he said.
Angelino, a former teacher and nurse, has made helping Ogburn’s flock his personal mission.
"I truly believe it’s a moral imperative as a human to try to make sure that everybody has a chance to have a decent life," he said. "Those of us who’ve been blessed have a responsibility to others."
Donations for the Faith Believers Ministry can be directed to Ogburn at 740-664-3200 or to the Unitarian Universalist Church at 614-267-4946.
Somebody once asked Jacques why he did this every week, and he said, "Why aren’t you?" There is a story–possibly apocryphal–about the night that Henry David Thoreau was locked up for refusing to pay a poll tax (because it would helped to fund the Mexican War). Ralph Waldo Emerson came to his cell and said, "Henry, what are you doing in there?" Thoreau, without skipping a beat, said, "Ralph, what are you doing out there?"
It has baffled (and troubled) me that many of the churches that seem to be the furthest from liberal religion are doing more of the work of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and comforting the downtrodden than many of the liberal and progressive churches. When we lived in Franklinton, many of Susie’s friends hung out at a place on W. Broad St. called Jericho Lighthouse Ministries. It was totally free, supported 100% by donations, and it gave kids a safe place to hang out. The director, an ex-con who had been locked up on drug charges, provided pool tables, dart boards, board games, and snacks (Hot Pockets, microwave tacos, Big K soda, etc.), and they did have a ministry there, with concerts, 12-Step meetings, etc. The theology was 180 degrees away from mine–he had books by Pat Robertson and the little comics by Christian cartoonist and hatemonger Jack T. Chick–but he was keeping kids out of trouble and off the street.
I took a picture on our arrival of the sign on the side of St. Rt. 356 that said MINERAL. Above it, someone had written "MISRABLE" (sic). I took the picture with my cell phone, and I don’t have the hardware to download it. (The picture quality isn’t that stellar, either.) Jacques took some pictures, which I may be able to post in this blog at a later date.
For those who want to help this ministry, send contributions to:
Feed My Sheep Food Pantry
Faith Believers’ Ministry
8137 St. Rt. 356
New Marshfield, OH 45766-9413
(The church is in Mineral, but since Mineral has no post office, New Marshfield is the town you use.)
Pat, the kids, and I took the scenic route. We left U.S. 33 just past Logan and went through Union Furnace, and within seconds we were in and out of Vinton County. Mineral has three churches (including Faith Believers’) on that one stretch of 356.
After each box of food on the table was stuffed to the rim (we made sure every square millimeter of every box was full of food), everyone laid their hands on the boxes and prayed over it before it was brought out to the small sanctuary for distribution. I think that made it go a little further in everyone’s hearts when they brought it home.
Rural poverty affects people much more acutely than in the big cities. In Columbus, there are many churches that offer free lunches and dinners, and usually people can get food from more than one pantry. All of them are within walking distance, and the bus system is thorough enough that a person can usually get things home that way. I remember that when I was broke and jobless in Cincinnati, I ate many an evening meal at St. Francis Seraph’s free dinners in Over the Rhine.
Athens County is very spread out, and if you don’t have a reliable vehicle, the resources are very hard to reach, and it is almost impossible to transport food and personal hygiene objects home. So Feed My Sheep is literally a lifeline and a lifesaver to many of the people in Athens County who live far from the comparatively plentiful resources available in larger cities.