Where a Meal Opens the Door to Change
Since 2010, Chef John Stout, an Assemblies of God U.S. Missionary with Church Planters and Developers, has been working with Mercy Chefs, a ministry with a primary focus of ministering to victims of disaster, first responders, and volunteers with freshly made, restaurant-quality “comfort foods.”
Although some may wonder how missions and meals are connected, Stout’s favorite quote provides the answer: “The gospel to a hungry person is a plate of food.”
But Mercy Chefs isn’t strictly about disaster response (although they can currently be found serving in the Houston area and are preparing for potentially serving in Florida). Founded by Chef Gary and Ann LeBlanc, the ministry can be found serving those with personal disasters — such as can be found in struggling neighborhoods in Baltimore or under bridges in Dallas/Fort Worth.
SUMMER OF PEACE
Baltimore is a city in turmoil. Violence, crime, mistrust — some might even say hatred — between neighborhoods and police, all in a massive death spiral with no hope in sight.
Melvin Russell, the chief of the Community Collaboration Division at the Baltimore Police Department and a 38-year veteran of the police force, had a huge challenge on his hands. The department had been working to learn the needs of the neighborhoods, but year after year, the gap only seemed to widen.
With the help of a friend and community partner, Matt Stevens, director of Somebody Cares Baltimore, Russell developed “Days of Hope” in 2010, which offers a kids zone, hot dogs, haircuts, various service providers, live entertainment, and groceries all for free to particularly difficult and devastated neighborhoods. It was a good start, but the hoped-for connection between the police and neighborhoods struggled to deepen.
Last summer, Mercy Chefs was brought into the picture. According to Russell, the ministry was a difference maker. “They understand the power of food,” Russell says. “Instead of walking around eating a hot dog and throwing the trash on the ground, people were sitting down, enjoying the festivities, and we were able to talk with them about love, hope, where you are in life, and direct them to on-site service providers to meet their needs.”
In addition, a prayer tent is a vital part of this effort. Since the inception of the Days of Hope, more than 4,000 souls have committed their lives to Christ. Sadly, the challenge is finding churches willing to do follow-up in these difficult neighborhoods.
“When breaking bread together, even opposing sides come together,” Russell observes. “It’s difficult to have violent acts against one another when you’re sharing a meal together.”
“We served roughly 500 meals a day in the neighborhoods,” Stout says, “and we have 10 to 15 chefs working in a rotating basis.”
Russell believes that many individuals in these crime-infested neighborhoods are tired of their old lifestyles, but they are trapped by their histories and criminal records. With no way out, they are forced to return to what they are used to — crime.
But now, with community members and officers “breaking bread” and developing relationships with neighborhood members, their true needs and desires are being made apparent. And now there is a grass roots movement — with churches and other community members invited to join — to provide educational and employment opportunities to residents, despite criminal histories.
“When you sit there and dialogue, talking about wills and ills and doing it over food, there’s an understanding that comes — a dynamic that most of us don’t think about,” Russell says.
Stout has learned from the Baltimore Police Department that when they host a Day of Hope with a meal in a neighborhood, crime drops significantly for weeks following. Russell made an even more startling revelation: Since August, there have been no violent crimes in the 32 neighborhoods they have been working in.
In short, the peace meals are allowing the police and people, whatever side of the tracks they are on, to meet in the middle and provide hope to those who were once hopeless. One would have to believe the prayer tent also plays a significant role in the new-found peace.
“I believe, with the combination of the efforts of the Baltimore Police Department, We Care Baltimore, and Mercy Chefs, it is definitely a game changer for the lives of the thousands of people in these neighborhoods,” Stout says.
HOMELESS BUT NOT HOPELESS
Over the last four years, Mercy Chefs has been partnering with local AG and other churches in the Dallas/Fort Worth area to provide the homeless with meals and the gospel.
Stout, the Dallas-area manager for Mercy Chefs, believes he would fall short in his ministry if in addition to the gospel and food he also wasn’t a source of encouragement and help. “We’ve seen people saved and people healed,” he says about the weekly outreach, “but my goal is to also move people from being hopeless to having hope. We’re not there just serving a meal, but we’re meeting felt needs and spiritual needs as we work to move people back into society [from homelessness].”
Sharon Teuber, 61, leads Fossil Creek Community Church's outreach to the homeless at Unity Park in Fort Worth. She has been working with Mercy Chefs since assisting with efforts following the 2011 Joplin Tornado.
“We want to supply our guests with a balanced, hot meal, where they can sit down and enjoy it,” Teuber says. “There’s an importance to sitting down and sharing a meal. During that time we also have people go around a talk with our guests, building relationships, and learning of needs we can meet.”
She says that the church also works with a Spirit-filled evangelist, Ronnie Gonzales and FHL Outreach, to provide music and the gospel. “When they start playing praise and worship music, that’s the signal for our guests to come. We serve about 250-275 people during each event.”
Stout tells of a man named Raymond who they were able to guide and help. “Now, he’s no longer homeless, he has a job, he’s going to school to get his college degree, and he’s still a part of the homeless church — coming back to give back,” Stout says.
Curtis Jackson, 44, is the coordinator for Trinity Church in Cedar Hill. He works with Stout in serving the church’s Under the Bridge ministry to change the lives of homeless in the Dallas area. However, it’s not uncommon for the site to change. Jackson explains that since the homeless are often on the move, he spends hours a week making sure they set up where the majority of the homeless are living, serving anywhere from 200 to 400 guests.
Jackson points to Stout’s example of consistency in serving over the last four years and placing compassion and concern for individuals as a top priority. “The people we serve want to know how much you care before they want things you can give them,” Jackson says. “John does that. He would go down underneath the bridge, apart from the service, just to talk . . . building a reputation as a person who cares.”
Jackson, whose twin 18-year-old daughters, Autumn and Jasmine, served as the vocalists in the ministry for the past four years, recalls seeing Stout speaking to a particularly distressed-looking homeless man following a cold, wet service. “Next thing you know, the guy is giving his life to Christ,” Jackson says. “That’s more than what cooks do — more than what food providers do; that’s what missionaries do — soul winners do!”