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Comfort for the Carolinas

Missionary Chef John Stout and his team freshly prepared and served more than 24,000 hot meals to victims of Hurricane Matthew and first responders in South and North Carolina over a nine-day span.

When Hurricane Matthew veered off its predicted course and inundated North and South Carolina, it left some cities literally underwater. But Mercy Chefs was already in position, ready to go wherever they were needed.

Mercy Chefs, founded by Chef Gary and Ann LeBlanc, is a ministry focused on providing victims of disasters, first responders, and volunteers with freshly made, restaurant-quality “comfort foods.” As Chef John Stout says, “The gospel to a hungry person is a plate of food.” 

Stout, an Assemblies of God U.S. missionary through Missionary Church Planters and Developers, is the managing chef for the Dallas unit of Mercy Chefs. “We were positioned to head into Florida, but when the hurricane went inland instead, we changed our plans.” 

For the first four days following the departure of Hurricane Matthew, Stout, his team, and their fully stocked Mercy Chef trailer/kitchen served up more than 16,000 meals to first responders and victims in Beaufort, South Carolina. Then news came in concerning the desperate need in North Carolina — specifically, Lumberton.

“As the relief effort was winding down in South Carolina, we were preparing for the disaster after the disaster in North Carolina,” Stout says. “The hurricane pushes water inland, up the rivers, and then with the heavy rain also coming down inland and draining down . . . the rivers swell even more.” In the case of Lumberton, the Lumber River flood stage is 13 feet — following the hurricane rains, the river exceeded the record crest of 20 feet by nearly four feet!

Stout and his team set up on high ground just outside of Lumberton, which has made national headlines as a city submerged by the flooding. Coupled with being located in Robeson County, one of the poorest counties in North Carolina, where the median household income is just $30,581, the location was where Mercy Chefs and Stout needed to be. 

Over the next five days, Stout and his team would make, handout, and deliver 1,600 meals a day. As the community’s utilities and water treatment areas were knocked out by the flooding, Stout says Mercy Chefs provided a water purification unit that produced 300 gallons of clean water an hour. “Mercy Chefs has donated the purification units in our overseas ministries, such as in Haiti, but never before domestically,” Stout says. “We’re working to raise the money to provide one for Robeson County, but they cost $14,000.” 

Although a meal may not readily appear like “a gospel message” to outside observers, Stout assures that a hot, comforting meal to a first responder who’s been living on MREs for a week or to victims who’ve missed numerous meals or simply are in need of an expression of love, hope, and normalcy are gateways to conversation and prayer. 

“When we handout or deliver meals, we take time to converse with people, maybe wrap an arm around them — let them know we’re here because we care and Jesus cares about them,” Stout says. “Then we simply ask, ‘how can I pray with you today?’" 

The responses to this kind of care are almost always ones of thankfulness and an openness to prayer.

Darlene Robison, senior director of Missionary Church Planters and Developers, believes in what Stout and his team are doing. “I think people can sense that John is motivated by God’s love,” she says.

“When someone gets that hot meal for the first time, you’d think you just handed them a ticket to Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse,” says Stout, who has made and served nearly 200,000 meals this year. “The expression on their faces and look in their eyes say it all.”

Dan Van Veen

Dan Van Veen is news editor of AG News. Prior to transitioning to AG News in 2001, Van Veen served as managing editor of AG U.S. Missions American Horizon magazine for five years. He attends Central Assembly of God in Springfield, Missouri, where he and his wife, Lori, teach preschool Sunday School and 4- and 5-year-old Rainbows boys and girls on Wednesdays.