Bread of Life Outreach
On Palm Sunday in 1971, drug addict and self-described hippie Gary Lee Bellis and his wife-to-be Mary walked down the aisle of Newport Assembly of God in Pennsylvania to accept Christ as Savior.
“I was a long-haired hippy with tie dye,” says Bellis, 68. “It was a very conservative church; it’s the church I now pastor.”
Bellis, a graduate of Zion Bible College, now Northpoint Bible College, has pastored Newport AG the past 44 years, but he’s never forgotten how the church accepted him. For the last 28 years, the church has shown that same compassion toward the community through Bread of Life Outreach (BOLO).
Bellis says BOLO started after he watched news coverage of the bread lines in Russia following the collapse of the former Soviet Union.
“We wanted to do a compassion strategy and reach out with evangelism and church planting,” Bellis says. Along with other U.S. ministers, Bellis identified pastors from underground churches and assisted them in securing church locations, biblical training, and humanitarian goods. Bellis developed a network of donors and contacts to help organize shipments.
In 1994, Bellis realized these contacts also could help meet needs at home. Over 50 percent of Perry County students qualify for the federal free or reduced lunch program.
After starting in a metal shed on a farm, BOLO now operates from a 6,500-square-foot warehouse in an erstwhile auto dealership. Last year, the ministry purchased another 11,000-square-foot warehouse facility.
Run under the umbrella of Newport Assembly of God, Bread of Life Outreach is a multifaceted compassion ministry. Services provided include food, medical supplies, and household items. Bellis says because the ministry does not accept federal assistance, it is able to support everyone, including those who struggle to make ends meet, but make too much for government aid.
“So many families have taken the step to get out of poverty and then have lost many of the benefits that come with that, like health care and child care,” Bellis says. “We don’t want our hands tied in any way.”
Bellis says families may come three days a week to shop for groceries, and once a month for frozen produce and meat. During the summer, fresh produce is available. For individuals who need medical supplies, items such as hospital beds, crutches, wheelchairs and walkers are available.
“We’ve gone to all the medical providers in our area and given them lists of what we can provide for people who can’t afford things,” Bellis says. “And they’ve been super cooperative with sending people to us.”
Bellis says the organization also supports the local school districts with pantries, offers programs for at-risk students, and fills teacher lounges with coffee, teas, and cards of appreciation.
In a conversation 17 years ago, a nurse who never got to go to prom because of her family’s poverty, asked if the church could help teens in a similar situation.
“We have around a thousand gowns and hundreds of suits and tuxes now,” Bellis says. “We also have cuff links, cummerbunds, ties, coupons for hair and nails. We have changing rooms, on-site alterations, makeup.”
During the event, Bellis gives all participants a copy of Rick Warren’s book What on Earth Am I Here For and he preaches a homily on the importance of looking good on the inside as well as the outside.
At Christmas, Bread of Life not only provides toys for children in poorer families, but allows children to come in for Little Shoppers, where they are able to choose gifts for their parents.
“We have things like blenders and vacuum cleaners,” he says. “A large retail chain donates six skids of items per week: bicycles, luggage, microwaves.”
Heidi Z. Ladd, BOLO warehouse coordinator, oversees a team of more than 300 volunteers.
“Some are retired, some have health issues and can’t work anymore,” Ladd says. “We have members from the church and the general community.”
Ladd says the volunteers try to meet spiritual as well as physical needs.
“When people come in the pantry, we ask them how they are doing and if they need prayer,” she says. “A bunch of us will stop whatever we are doing and gather around them, comforting and praying for them.”
In 2019, Bread of Life Outreach distributed 1,849 tons of products. Since 1994, BOLO has distributed 46,313 tons.
“We network with so many other organizations, ministries, and donors,” he says. “We want to be synergistic because together we can accomplish so much more than what we can do individually.”
Bellis says Bread of Life Outreach also partners with other compassion organizations, including Convoy of Hope.
In 2019, Newport Assembly planted The Dinner Table, a place to disciple those in the community who have no religious affiliation.
After starting with 10 people a year ago, by March this year an average of 158 people came on Thursday evenings. The Dinner Table features a free meal, brief worship, and 10-minute message.