Beyond 10 Million Meals
In the first week of March — before any business shutdowns or shelter-in-place edicts — Convoy of Hope president and CEO Hal Donaldson dined in a Springfield, Missouri, restaurant. A woman he had never seen before walked up to his table and proclaimed a message.
“I don’t know who you are, but I’m supposed to tell you the virus is serious,” the stranger declared. “You need to gather as many masks and as much food as you can.”
With that, the woman turned and walked out of the eatery.
“I really took it as a word from the Lord,” says Donaldson. Convoy of Hope team members devised a strategy to deliver 10 million meals through partner churches during the pandemic. Trucks began rolling across the country on March 25.
They haven’t stopped. Nor will they, in the foreseeable future.
“Now we’re over 15 million meals,” says Donaldson, 62. “We will just keep going; I honestly don’t know where it will lead us.”
The need remains great. Convoy of Hope has dispatched truckloads of food, water, hygiene kits, cleaning supplies, and other relief materials to more than 500 churches since 10 Million Meals began. Some hard-hit areas, such as Seattle or New York City, have received multiple deliveries. Another 500 congregations are on a waiting list, even while Convoy teams work overtime to meet the growing demand.
After Convoy drops off the loads of products, most churches are distributing it to needy residents at drive-through events. Some congregations, however, are boxing or bagging up provisions and delivering them door to door. Donaldson emphasizes that all participating churches are following recommended government safety precautions, including keeping a 6-foot physical separation.
Donaldson notes that an important element in the cog is Speed the Light, the Assemblies of God National Youth Ministry that has provided 20 Convoy truck tractors crisscrossing the nation.
Before a truckload is delivered to a church or a group of churches, Convoy ensures the recipient has the capacity to distribute the contents of the load.
That’s not a problem for megachurches, many of which have been partnering with Convoy, founded in 1994, for years.
Cornerstone Church in Bowie, Maryland, fed more than 2,000 families over a two-week span, providing six meals for each household. Toilet paper and paper towels — still in short supply in the area — ranked at the top of the list of prize possessions at the giveaway.
Although pastor Mark A. Lehmann, 60, is glad attendance for Cornerstone’s online services has increased during the lockdown, he’s more thrilled at the nascent outreaches the church is doing, including feeding nursing home professionals, hospital employees, and firefighters, as well as the Convoy outreach.
“While we’re touching far more people in the virtual world during this time, we’re also actually touching more people in the real world,” says Lehmann, who has been at the church 26 years and is assistant superintendent of the Potomac Ministry Network. “God says be the Church, don’t stay in the church.”
New York has been at the epicenter of the pandemic in terms of infections and deaths. Convoy has delivered two truckloads of goods to Bethlehem Assembly of God in Valley Stream, with plans to send three more. Pastor Steve Milazzo says the church has partnered with Convoy the past eight years for an annual Hope Day.
This spring, after Convoy trucks arrived, Bethlehem AG distributed the wares to 40 communities in the New York metro region plus Long Island. Volunteers from 40 congregations gave out 10,000 meals and 2,000 bags of groceries. The church’s gymnasium became a warehouse and the dormant sanctuary a distribution center.
“This is a wonderful expression of the body of Christ to meet practical needs,” says Milazzo, 57. “We want to empower churches at the local level.”
Bethlehem AG, which has attendees representing 55 nations, also has experienced dozens of congregants infected with the virus. A physician and a Royal Rangers leader are among those who have died, according to Milazzo, who has been lead pastor for 27 years.
Oaks Church in Red Oak, Texas, distributed 27,000 pounds of food and other supplies to 400 families thanks to Convoy. Pastor W. Scott Wilson, 50, says about half the recipients came to the church for the goods after connecting with the church via its website. Around one-third of the meals went to needy families identified by school superintendents and a county judge. The rest went to two smaller congregations to dispense.
“Convoy has the same philosophy as our church: everything is done better in partnership,” says Wilson, who has been lead pastor 20 years. “We want to do things with the community, not just for the community.” In addition, Oaks Church is independently preparing 5,000 meals — five for each child — on Wednesdays.
Trucks from Convoy also are traveling to midsized cities. First Assembly of God in Normal, Illinois, coordinated a Convoy delivery with four other AG churches in the Normal-Bloomington twin cities. Pastor Joel E. Labertew, 48, says each church created a unique Facebook event using Convoy promotional material to notify residents of the giveaway.
The pastor and five volunteers from each congregation came to the distribution site at First AG in Normal over two weekends. The church organized lanes for three rows of vehicles, two designated for food and one for food and prayer. But the prayer inclusive line grew so long, Labertew decided to offer prayer for every occupant. All volunteers wore masks and gloves, and kept their distance.
“It’s incredible how many people welcomed and appreciated prayer,” says Labertew, who has pastored the church for six years. “They were not in a hurry to drive away.” One driver accepted Christ as Savior.
“This reinforces the need for congregations to be involved in compassion,” says Labertew, an Illinois District presbyter “And we need to build relationships with other churches.”
Many churches are weeks, if not months, away from being able to reopen to full capacity. That is a factor in Donaldson’s desire to keep the initiative going.
“We don’t know when this will end,” Donaldson says. “So many people have lost jobs; so many children no longer have access to school lunches. This will have a ripple effect with the economy, so it’s imperative that we keep going to meet spiritual and physical needs.”
For Donaldson, the compassion for the poor, especially children, stirs long personal memories. In 1969, his pastor father was killed by a drunken driver in a wreck that also seriously injured his mother. He and his three younger siblings struggled in poverty during many of their formative years.
Meanwhile, various corporations that are longtime donors to Convoy are having a difficult time producing enough to keep up with demand, which has slowed some donations. This, the nonprofit has opted to purchase some product at wholesale prices.
“That’s expensive, but we feel like this is the moment for the Church,” Donaldson says. Some experts at the beginning of the lockdown encouraged nonprofits to “circle the wagons” and protect their assets. Donaldson doesn’t believe that’s a wise strategy for any ministry-related organization.
“The churches that are outward looking will have the most influence in their communities and be stronger on the other side of the pandemic,” Donaldson says. “But churches that have chosen to isolate may struggle in the future.”
Donaldson says Convoy of Hope’s commitment to Assemblies of God World Missions hasn’t skipped a beat during the coronavirus crisis. Convoy has ongoing programs in 20 countries feeding children and helping mothers learn job skills.
Lead Photo: Volunteers at Oak Church load up a vehicle with bags of supplies.
Bottom Photo: Workers at First Assembly of God in Normal prepare to distribute groceries and other relief items.