With assistance of a grant from the United Church of Christ Neighbors in Need program, a congregation in Maine is living into the Rev. Kelli Whitman's mission of community, spurred by a sermon that encouraged her members to help the less fortunate. Members of Prides Corner Congregational UCC meet each Monday to pick the vegetables from their church garden and sort them for drop-off at a local food pantry to help feed hundreds of families each week.
"I think it's the most exciting thing our congregation is doing right now," Whitman said. "To me this is what the church is at its best. It's ideas that connect our passion to what God has called us to do, and it's finding ways for the whole church to be involved. It was so neat to see my youth group helping fill the beds and others come and harvest the vegetables to donate.
"When it's a tough day, I look out at the garden and say, 'That's what it's all about.'"
In 2012, the UCC Justice and Witness Ministries (JWM) doubled the number of grants awarded during the third year of the Neighbors in Need (NIN) program. Grants are given each spring and fall to congregations and organizations that work to address hunger and food injustices in their communities. Right now, groups interested in a NIN grant have one week remaining before the Sept. 30 fall deadline to apply.
"We sometimes think hunger is something that happens to people far away, and we forget it happens in our own back yard," Whitman said. "We have many, many families in the Westbrook school district that rely on the food pantry, who are at risk of being hungry. You don't have to go far to find people in need. They're our neighbors, right here."
With the help of the $2,000 from Neighbors in Need, the congregation purchased rain barrels, fencing and seeds to plant, while local organizations and companies donated other supplies, including the planting boxes, soil and compost. The produce you'll find growing in Prides Corner's garden include tomatoes, onions, radishes, lettuce, carrots, string beans, beets, eggplant, zucchini, peas and peppers. Next year, the church plans to expand the garden to include more items, such as blueberry bushes or butternut squash.
The idea for the garden was conceived a year ago with a sermon by Whitman on an ordinary Sunday, as she spoke about helping hungry people in Westbrook. Two members, Tammy Gross and Shari Salisbury went to Whitman and asked about building a vegetable garden behind the church and donating the food to the Westbrook Food Pantry.
"The project was a little bigger than we thought, and one of my members – when we were talking about the Neighbors in Need offering in the fall – came to me and said, 'We should apply for a grant for the garden, and the other churches can read about what we're doing,'" Whitman said.
There were some bumps along the way as the members began digging and learned the soil wasn't suitable for planting, but the congregation stuck with it, got the garden together and dedicated it in May.
The UCC awarded a total of $254,300 to 148 organizations last year as part of Neighbors in Need, surpassing the disbursed amounts from 2010 and 2011 by more than $135,000. Previously, JWM distributed $101,000 in 71 grants during 2011, and $118,500 in 79 grants during 2010.
"These last three years are a testament of the support of our partners toward Neighbors in Need," said the Rev. Linda Jaramillo, executive minister of JWM. "It's a reward to learn of stories like this one where Prides Corner Congregational has worked to help their brothers and sisters with this garden. We're grateful for all the support we have received and we're excited to see what this upcoming group of grant recipients will do in the future in their ministries."
The Neighbors in Need offering is one of five special all-church mission offerings of the UCC each year. The others include One Great Hour of Sharing, Strengthen the Church, the Christmas Fund, and Our Churches Wider Mission.
Neighbors in Need was one of the primary programs funded in part by the Mission:1 campaign. It also supports the Council for American Indian Ministry. This fall, another group of churches and other organizations fighting hunger will be selected to receive up to $3,000 each.
"All of the best ministry comes from the passions of the congregation," Whitman said. "I have lots of gardeners and it's what they love and know how to do. It's great to have them make that connection with a passion for doing something and a service to their faith and community."