Blessed to have this piece published in The South Carolina Advocate, edited by Jessica Brodie.
A COMMUNITY MEAL ON O’NEAL STREET
By the Rev. Darlene L. Kelley
The Todd family lived down the road at the end of the marsh and the beginning of Fisherman’s Bay.
Donna—skinny, shy and 12 years old, just like me at the time—was one my closest friends on the Eastern Shore, literally and figuratively. Whenever I wasn’t working with my father, I was more than likely looking for something to do with Donna Todd.
With the help of his two ablest sons, Mr. Todd worked the water, back and forth across the bay in his long, flat boat, running a trot line for blue crabs in the damp heat of summer and fighting ice, wind and freezing rain in the winter to pull oysters from the mud. Some gossiped about Sonny Todd and how his bad-boy ways kept him too interested in drink and other women to be a good husband or a decent daddy, but the gossip stopped whenever Donna’s mother walked in the room. Still lovely through disappointment and fatigue, Lily Todd worked at one of the long steel tables, a cog in the row of women, picking the succulent meat from the bushels of crabs hoisted up on the docks and then steamed fiery red. That’s the first time I ever heard anybody talk about “piece work,” and I misunderstood completely, not able to separate the term from peace on earth. In reality, it meant Donna’s mother got paid for each pound of crabmeat she picked—nothing more, nothing less. The Todds were hardscrabble people in a long line of hardscrabble people.
One beautiful afternoon that must have been too early or too late for us to be working, I played along the shoreline all morning with Donna and a gaggle of her towheaded siblings. There seemed too many children to count in the Todd house, and Donna usually had two or three of her younger siblings underfoot while her mother worked. As the sun climbed higher in the sky, my stomach started growling, and the idea of lunch came to me. It seemed rude to turn my friend and her brood away; we’d been having too much fun. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were just the thing, and I escorted Donna and her three mud-streaked siblings to our front porch and went in to raid the kitchen.
Much to my horror, there was no jelly—the jelly spot was empty. No jar lingered neglected on the table. Nothing stuck to a shelf in the fridge. There was just no jelly in the house, and I was as momentarily mortified as any 12-year-old can be. How could I serve peanut butter and jelly sandwiches without the jelly? It seemed downright uncivilized and un-American.
But I had no choice. It was peanut butter on a loaf of Shore Fine white bread, or it was nothing, and my guests were waiting on the porch.
So out I went with the loaf of bread and the jar of peanut butter, preparing to apologize or explain or assure them that we were not really brutes at all, just terribly unprepared.
But when I sat the bread and the peanut butter down on the porch, I had no words. The Todd children tore into that loaf of bread with an intensity I’d never witnessed, a hunger I’d never known, and I was left speechless, amazed at what I was seeing with my own eyes—hungry children, children hungrier than I’d ever been or ever known.
Children who lived just down the road.
Since that day, I’ve seen children as hungry as the Todd children, thankfully not often, but it’s always as powerful. It punches you in the gut right above the space that must be empty in the children, and it’s always discouraging to think that hungry children live just down the road, but they do.
Our local food bank in Columbia, Harvest Hope, informs us that one in six South Carolinians struggles with food insecurity and hunger. The food bank distributed more than 27 million pounds of food last year, and according to their website they rescued, packed, transported and delivered nutritious food to soup kitchens, shelters, food pantries and schools in 20 counties in South Carolina.
If we choose to be doers and not merely hearers of the word, we’d do well to learn more about hunger in our community and maybe even invite some folks over for dinner. That’s just what we did at the O’Neal Street United Methodist Church, and we did it to honor the nurture, outreach and witness that undergirds mission in our church. Just like Jesus, we want to meet people where they are. Then we invite them for a plate of spaghetti, because nothing brings strangers together better than breaking bread with one another.
We ate with some old friends and made some new friends, and met a few of our neighbors. We had an incredible kitchen crew and small staff of volunteers that made the work look easy and are blessedly willing to do it all again. At our next dinner, we are going to serve hot dogs and all the fixings.
Indeed, celebrating a monthly community meal is our goal and an important step in launching our new pantry at the O’Neal Street UMC.
Through a board representing an ecumenical collaboration of multiple churches in Newberry, God’s Abundance For All People will be housed at O’Neal Street UMC and hopes to open as soon as next month.
Danny Newton, lay member of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Little Mountain and a board member of God’s Abundance, recently led the first volunteer training event for the new feeding program. Ten volunteers from several area churches attended the training and signed up to work.
Our community meals and our new food pantry will work hand in hand to reach out to the neighborhood.
Being in mission is being in relationship, and we know that relationship with God and one another is what it’s all about. James probably says it best: If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? (James 2xx).
At The O’ Neal Street UMC, James doesn’t have to tell us twice—we’re ready for a party. A dinner party, that is, where the whole community is welcome.
Kelley is pastor of O’Neal Street & MT. Pleasant United Methodist Churches