A ministry that started with a peanut butter sandwich more than 14 years ago has developed into a major community endeavor at United Church of Christ Fort Lauderdale that brings together outreach, worship, extravagant welcome and heartfelt hospitality.
Ruth's Ministry, named after the volunteer who first offered something to eat to a hungry young woman, continues a mission of care and concern. The ministry provides a lunch time meal for the less-fortunate, runs a complementary clothing closet and holds a thriving worship service — every Thursday. It is also in the business of changing lives.
"I come to church on Thursdays with my wife because I believe that I hear God speak to me and I feel God at this church," said Antonio. "I enjoy the message as I have not felt it or received it in other churches. I am 47 years old and grateful to God that I finally found that connection here at United Church of Christ Fort Lauderdale."
The program first started with food. Providing a homemade meal to homeless people once a week at 11:00 a.m., with community volunteers from all walks of life. Now, over 8,000 meals are served a year.
"Five years ago, Ruth's Ministry at United Church of Christ Fort Lauderdale started a chapel service because it was requested by some of our guests," said Jim 'Sarge' Sargent, a lay leader and passionate supporter of what he called the Thursday Congregation.
"When we decided to do the chapel service, we made it voluntary so that people did not have to come to worship to eat. We agreed to hold services a half hour before they were being fed. That first service in our Chapel started out with six people. We outgrew the chapel space within a few months, and we moved into Elliott Hall. We have now outgrown Elliott Hall. Today we are meeting in the main sanctuary."
On February 21, the Thursday service drew 82 congregants and UCC Fort Lauderdale served 138 meals in Elliot Hall afterward.
The Rev. Patrick Rogers, UCC Fort Lauderdale's senior pastor, pointed out that the Ruth's Ministry Program and the second weekly church service on Thursday is now larger than the Sunday worship service was four years ago.
Ask any of the attendees why they come — you hear "To get peace of mind. To talk to people. I enjoy the fellowship. I'm trying to find a church home." Sargent said it's also because the group of people who gather care about each other, and "they are FINALLY part of a church where they know they are LOVED."
Ruth's Ministry is also a labor of love. Everything is donated — this outreach program is not subsidized by private or government agencies. Every Thursday, 20-30 volunteers donate their time and talents in serving the meal and staffing the clothing closet — but the ministry is a seven-days-a-week operation. On Tuesday, members gather to sort clothing and donations made from the church, surrounding community and business organizations. Wednesday is dinner preparation day, with everything for the meal made from scratch. The rest of the week, volunteers keep busy picking up donations, shopping for food and clothing and cleaning the facilities.
The clothing closet deals in volume, where everything is complementary. According to UCC Fort Lauderdale, 9,100 tee shirts — both men and women's — are given out every year, along with almost 4,700 pairs of shoes, 3,900 men and women's pants and shorts, and 2,600 pairs of socks. The ministry also supplies toiletries — about 15,000 items a year. And hundreds of backpacks. Each week, when guests leave they get a to-go bag of goodies.
"I hear often from the volunteers that they receive much more than they give. And they give a tremendous amount of dedication," Rogers said. "In yesterday's lectionary reading, Jesus said, 'A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.' They don't volunteer to receive measure (or a reward) but give out of love for their neighbor and receive an abundance of love in return. Jesus told us how it works, and he was right! Ruth Ministry inspires!"
"If you call the Church and ask what time are our services, you will be told that we have two Services, and both are held at 10:30 a.m. on Thursdays and Sundays," Sargent said. He started preaching at the Thursday service four years ago and is one of his congregants' biggest allies.
"One of my favorite aspects of Ruth's Ministry and the church service is the interfaith component," Rogers said. "Some of the Volunteers are friends or members of the church but a large percentage are of other faiths. We have many who are Catholic and Jewish and from other Protestant churches and many other faith traditions. The focus of the program is that it is our faith in human kind that brings us together to serve others. The focus on mission instead of fear breaks down barriers of division and we all grow spiritually in the process. The volunteers care for each other and have become a church family also."
"Stop by some Thursday morning at 10:00 a.m." said 'Sarge' "and experience a 'Church on the Move.' You will meet some of the greatest people in the Ft. Lauderdale area!"
"These people gave me hope again. I was scared and I was losing faith," said Brenda. "I had a lot of problems and Sarge and everybody helped me through. I never thought I would get back up again. They gave me the faith to keep fighting. I'm now a flight attendant and I am happier than I have ever been. This will always be a part of my heart right here. I will never forget any of these people."