Who is my neighbor?
Reaching Your Neighbors with canned goods
by Rebecca Barnes
North American suburbanites may never meet some of the people in their own neighborhood. Recent studies suggest the average American knows fewer than three people on the same street well enough to have a meaningful conversation.
This may be the main reason behind the failure of so many meet-your-neighbor evangelism tactics. These approaches seem artificial if you never bothered to meet your neighbor before you wanted them to go to church with you, attend a Bible study or evangelistic event.
Instead, Christianity is more often validated when it is shod with shoes of action, working for peace and justice, for the poor and the hungry. Jesus explained that with the Good Samaritan story. And this validation comes not only from those whose needs are being met, but from those who are watching.
“Feed the hungry and help those in trouble,” Isaiah 58:10 begins. “Then your light will shine out from the darkness” (NLT).
Barbara Hand of Raleigh, N.C., said she doesn’t consider herself a neighborhood evangelist—far from it. And the people in her affluent suburban church were not hungry. But when she learned about a food drive ministry that impacts both those who give and those who receive with Christ’s love, she was intrigued.
“The food piece of it is what got me,” she said.
Different churches call the program different names, but it began with a ministry under Norm Whan called Canning Hunger. More than the average food drive, the work involves getting to know the neighbors—the ones that are not physically hungry but who may be spiritually in need.
Instead of the church drumming up inside interest in food donations, a food pantry and an outreach to the poor, the church calls on volunteers to simply meet their neighbors and collect food from them.
Most strategies include prior communication about the upcoming food drive, and an introduction, “Hi I’m your neighbor and I’m collecting food for the hungry …” But the premise is simple.
“They just hand it to me and we visit,” said Hand.
Neighbors begin to open to volunteers, because they have seen their compassion and been pulled into it.
“There’s something about you being the good guy and doing the thing they think the church people ought to do, which is feeding the poor people,” said Tom Bowers, who wrote about the Canning Hunger program on www.Withreach.com.
Eventually, after three monthly collections, that visit may turn to prayer. Volunteers collecting donations are trained to ask those who give for prayer requests. They explain that they pray for the people who will receive the food, but that everyone has needs. Then they ask to pray. About half of the people are usually open to prayer, according to Bowers.
“That changes everything,” Bowers said.
The relationship is stepped up to a more personal level and the prayer initiates further contact—a call to check on the status of the prayer request, for example.
“So many people run from evangelism,” Bowers said. He is also a writer for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. In contrast, Bowers said he was overwhelmed with volunteers for the Canning Hunger program when he presented to his 120-member Bible study at his church.
“They found this idea so comfortable,” Bowers said, “Because it was going to connect with the neighbors in a way that the neighbors actually liked.”
The connecting is the beginning. Bowers sees the potential of the program to grow churches, both physically with new members, and spiritually as people extend their love outward.
Hand said she saw the program as a “good avenue to get people out walking and living their faith.”
The program can run with no budget and is driven by church volunteers. “This works,” says Bowers. “The neighbors will appreciate you asking, invite you back, and start thinking of you as a friend.”
There isn’t overt evangelization, but there is a lot of relationship building—which can lead to spiritual conversations. There is no church recruiting, no connection cards or even much mention of a church connected to the program.
“We don’t go out and try to get people to come to Crossroads,” Hand said. Her church is Crossroads Fellowship in Raleigh. She said many of her neighbors already attend another church. “Our mission is to collect food for the hungry.”
Hand has overseen the low-maintenance program at her church for three years. She said it requires only a couple hours a month from volunteers and about five hours from a coordinating volunteer. Withreach.com also offers resources to churches interested in beginning a program.
A church food pantry is not a requirement. Crossroads partnered with a local Christian food bank that picks up their donations from the church building.
Hand says the group averages 1,200 food items collected each month. That represents the work of 15-20 people. She wants to do more for the hungry in her area and for those who give out of the goodness in their heart but not necessarily because God is in their heart.
Hand said she trains her volunteers to work on helping the poor and building relationships with their neighbors, not an agenda of either collecting food or souls. “I say to them, what you are doing is Jesus.”
Bowers said the simple strength of the program is that it brings evangelism and care together. “These volunteers have a passion for the poor, and for prayer, and for their neighbors.”