Church Blesses Community, God Moves Community to Bless Church
When COVID-19 swept the country and churches were forced to close their doors and move online, Belvidere First Assembly of God made a big decision — they kept their food pantry open.
Pastor David Smith, and his wife, Kristen, who is the director of the B1 Pantry, launched the pantry three years ago at the church — located about 13 miles east of Rockford, Illinois — about a year after being voted in as lead pastor.
“Pre-COVID, we fed about 100 families per week, and through our suppliers, it cost about $300 week,” David says. “When COVID struck, we only had $1,000 in the pantry account, but we decided to trust God to provide.”
Kristen laughs and adds that it was during a news interview on camera where God put it in her heart to share that people can come to their drive-thru pantry now weekly.
“We didn’t know where the money would come from,” she says, “but when you do what He tells you to do, then He provides.”
And provide God did. Over the next three weeks, even as the numbers of people coming to the pantry began increasing, different people from the community of about 25,000 stepped forward to give a donation to cover the costs.
But the struggles for the pantry weren’t over. Some suppliers to the pantry either shutdown or began running short of items. David says they were forced to buy some items “off the shelf” in order to provide food for families, later noting that simply buying a side dish of macaroni off the shelf for the weekly pantry effort now costs $300.
With costs substantially increasing, the ability for the pantry to be able to meet the growing need was in serious doubt. God again answered their prayers.
“The local FCA Chrysler group and the Belvidere Community Foundation both gave us substantial grants to keep the pantry open!” David says, amazement still in his voice.
Yet as Kristen points out, with the COVID-19, the Chrysler plant has had layoffs, which have trickled down to companies that provide goods and services to the plant, causing them to have layoffs as well — meaning more people in need of assistance.
“In this community, everybody seems to know First Assembly,” Kristen says, “because almost everyone knows someone experiencing food insecurity.”
But since First Assembly went online, church members, community members, and other businesses have continued to give toward the pantry. David says that even small donations add up to make a difference.
However, yet another challenge arose to threaten the pantry. For years, the church has relied upon an old 1994 F-250 box truck that struggled to carry two pallets of food. It was rated to carry loads up to 2,500 pounds — one pallet of canned goods could weigh nearly that much. About a week ago, the 26-year-old truck made its last trip and the church was forced to rent a truck in order to pick up their supplies.
“The local news found out about our need and did a story on it, and we started a Go Fund Me page,” David says. The response from the community was quick and generous, raising over $4,500 in just a few days, allowing the church to put a significant down payment on a vehicle. “We now have a new-to-us E-350 truck, rated to carry 6,100 pounds and can hold up to six pallets of food!”
The new truck also provides a ramp and a step in order to easily access, load, and unload the back of the truck — something that David says he’s extremely thankful for — as the old truck had neither.
For many churches, COVID-19 has caused congregations and their impact on their communities to dwindle. But Smith says that as a direct result of COVID-19, there are now more people attached to the church of about 150 (and not just online) and First Assembly’s relationship with and impact on the community is stronger than ever. Currently the church provides food for 300 families a week — triple the number pre-COVID.
“In some communities, you could remove a church and no one would ever miss it,” David says. “We’ve worked hard to become a church that if we weren’t here, the community would definitely notice.”
Kristen agrees, sharing how the church has a program within the B1 Pantry called Nathan’s Closet, providing diapers and clothing for people in need of them. They also work with police officers and health workers who need items for instances such as when children are removed from homes and/or transitioned to foster care. It seems that almost daily the church’s visibility within the community increases.
Although God has blessed Belvidere First Assembly through its faithfulness to serve even in times of financial uncertainty and in the face of disease, one of the things the Smiths are looking forward to is allowing more of their volunteers to help with the pantry.
“We used to have 20 to 30 people working every week, greeting people, welcoming them, helping them with their groceries, but now we are only permitted to have 10,” David says. “And those 10 are limited to those who can repeatedly carry 30 pounds up stairs.”
David explains that the pantry is less about a person’s need, and much more about expressing God’s — and their congregation’s — love for people. “It’s like we’re saying, ‘You’re one of us, and hey, we have a box of food for you, too.’”
Some people come through the B1 Pantry line not because of need, but for connection or, for those more at risk, such as the elderly, they come because they’re concerned about going into stores. And as Kristen notes, appreciation and gratefulness are commonly expressed.
It’s not hard to see why First Assembly has become well known in the community. And while other cities experienced racism riots, First Assembly was asked to join Belvidere’s peaceful protest against racism.
Today, again as a result of the church being a vital part of caring for the community, David is part of a quarterly meeting with the mayor and local social and civic organization leaders to help discuss problems and find solutions.
“We’re having conversations with the people in charge,” he observes, “rather than screaming, looting, breaking, and burning things [as done in other communities].”
And finally, David adds with a laugh, there is one other benefit of the pantry remaining open — with nearly 40% of Belvidere being Hispanic, he and Kristen have become quite fluent in Spanish . . . well, at least sort of. As Hispanics come through the pantry lines, the couple has progressively learned proper Spanish greetings and the names and phrases that identify many food items — which now flow easily from their lips.
“¡Bien hecho (well done), David y Kristen!”