Faye Newman watched as a man leaned over, reached into a trash can and pulled out a half-eaten burrito.
"No, no," said Faye, "that's nasty."
Faye hurried inside her inner-city Los Angeles church, cooked the man some food and sent him away with more food to eat later.
"That's when my life changed," remembers Faye.
That night as she tried to sleep, the homeless man's desperate hunger -- and willingness to eat out of a trash can -- haunted her. After a restless night, Faye got up and flipped open her Bible. The pages fell open to Jesus' words in Matthew 25: "For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in" (v. 35).
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, over 11 percent of Americans have to choose between buying food or spending money on another necessity.
Faye's new understanding of hunger consumed her -- she knew she was supposed to feed people. But she quickly learned it wasn't going to be easy.
"Are you sure?" Faye's pastor asked when she went to talk to him later that day about starting a food ministry at their church. "It's hard work."
Undaunted, Faye had made up her mind. "OK," he said, "run on in Jesus' name."
This began Faye's unending quest. She started volunteering at a local food bank, Genesis, and soon worked directly with churches that picked up food. There she met Bishop B.J. Luckett, who had the same unshakeable vision. The bishop also understood the challenge.
"Faye wasn't getting much support," says Bishop Luckett. He knew Faye ran the food ministry at her church all by herself. He suggested they work together, and Faye eventually agreed.
Faye and the bishop started distributing food to other churches. When Genesis folded because of legal trouble, many pastors looked to Faye and the bishop for food. They applied for nonprofit status to receive government-funded food to help meet the demand.
Distribution quickly jumped from five to 25 churches. Each week, pallets of food would be stacked to overflowing in Faye's backyard and garage. Others heard about the ministry, and in 3 years the Neighborhood Outreach Council, as they were called, distributed food to 55 churches and organizations -- all from Faye's home.
But Faye was still restless. "I told the bishop, 'I don't feel like we're really doing much,'" says Faye. "We need to teach churches how to use the food."
At her church, Faye started an optional Bible study in conjunction with the food giveaway. Each week fewer people came just for the food and more came for the study. She offered this curriculum to other pastors, but Faye lacked the skills and resources to train them.
"The ministry had grown to another level," says Faye.
And growth brought a new set of problems. At 4 a.m. one Saturday, Faye woke up to the sound she feared.
"It was raining something fierce," Faye remembers.
She ran outside and tried to pull a tarp over the pallets of food. Faye cried out asking God to save the food.
"That was the first time I asked God for a bigger space," says Faye. "I realized I wasn't being a good steward over the ministry."
Two months later, Faye and Bishop Luckett were talking with staff members from Here's Life Inner City, Campus Crusade for Christ's compassionate urban outreach. Faye was now a pastor, and college students working with HLIC were visiting her church, H.O.P.E. (Help Our People Evangelize) Community Temple.
"I was amazed what she was doing out of her backyard," says Mike Herman, HLIC director in Los Angeles. So he offered Faye and the bishop space in HLIC's warehouse -- for free.
"We focus on helping churches and ministries be more effective," says Mike.
In February 2000, the Neighborhood Outreach Council moved out of Faye's house and into an industrial neighborhood in central Los Angeles to begin distribution from the HLIC warehouse.
Volunteers are greeted by 79-year-old Everidge "The Sarge" Bernard, who barks out orders, fills out paperwork and then ushers volunteers back outside. Eight men from sober-living homes load the food into trucks and church vans.
Today's giveaway -- moved by forklift onto the dock by a retired warehouse manager named Charles Mann -- is orange juice, pudding, oats, vegetable soup, peanut butter, beef stew and dried milk. This food won't be enough to feed a family, but it provides supplemental emergency food for those who need it.
The partnership with HLIC has allowed the warehouse to serve even more churches -- 291 to be exact. But this growth has also alienated the ministry from its lifeblood. For 2 ½ years, Neighborhood Outreach Council's largest source of donated food has been the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank.
In November 2004, L.A. Regional made ultimatums, leading Faye to sever her relationship with the foodbank in favor of another. Although L.A. Regional says bookkeeping errors led to the split, Mike Herman feels Neighborhood Outreach Council's increased distribution was perceived as competition. Some foodbanks are run like businesses -- as more food is given away, the budget and profit for the foodbank also increases.
Mike believes L.A. Regional was afraid Neighborhood Outreach Council would split off and start their own foodbank. Instead, they began to depend on the Foodbank of Southern California, despite the risk they might offer less food.
Less or more, 55-year-old Faye has remained true to her vision.
"Feeding people isn't a solution," says Faye. "It's a way to open people's doors."
When churches are able to literally open the door to people's houses, they can address the root of other problems. Then change has a chance to begin.
Each month HLIC trains churches to use food to feed another hunger. Faye compares the training to fishing.
"Food is the hook," she says, "and we're throwing out the line. Then we teach the fish [church volunteers] to go fishing."
The Saturday training sessions focus on evangelism, using the 4 Spiritual Laws booklet, as well as on how to help new Christians grow in their faith.
And many churches have caught on. After Pastor Marcos Lemoine of La Puente Foursquare Church joined Faye's food-distribution warehouse, his congregation of 100 began passing out food to 800 people each week.
In the 1st month of distribution, Pastor Marcos' church just gave away food. The next month they asked if people needed help beyond the weekly food supplement or were interested in a home Bible-discussion group. "Unless people know you care, they're not going to listen to you," says Pastor Marcos. "Now they trust us."
In the first 4 months, 15 new families joined the church.
Nick Ortiz saw a flier advertising the food giveaway. He had just moved, didn't have a job and was desperate for help.
Nick received food, started attending La Puente Foursquare Church and rededicated his life to Jesus. Since then, his wife has accepted Christ, and the church hired him as their janitor. Now his wife's mother and sister receive food, and her 11-year-old brother attends church outreach events.
"We've been able to minister to the whole family as a result of the food ministry," says Pastor Marcos.
It is the beginning of what Faye and HLIC see as community transformation. At 9 a.m. on a Saturday, pastors and representatives from several churches arrive at the warehouse for the monthly training. The meeting starts with a cappella song.
"Bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more," they sing.
This Saturday, Bob Combs, a 10-year staff member with HLIC, shows the group a video called Transformation. It shows several communities once plagued by violence, hunger and other infirmities -- places like Kaimbu, Kenya, and Cali, Colombia -- that have been transformed through the power of prayer.
At the end, Bob challenges the captivated group. "What does that look like in Los Angeles?" he asks. "What do we have to do?"
"Start praying," answers the crowd.
"Not by yourself," he reminds them.
Los Angeles County has 10 million people. Although Faye used to see hunger as a problem, she now sees it as one way to help reach her city with the gospel. Faye still doesn't sleep much. But instead of tossing and turning, dreaming about hunger, she's dreaming of the future -- of what God will continue to do in Los Angeles.
Food For Thought
- The Los Angeles food-distribution warehouse, leased by Here's Life Inner City, is 18,000 square feet -- nearly the size of 4 basketball courts.
- In 2004 the warehouse received 2 million pounds of donated food. This equals the weight of 285 Chevrolet Suburbans.
- Each week the food arrives in 2 tractor-trailers.
- Because of the warehouse, 400,000 people receive food each month. In Los Angeles County, 750,000 people choose between buying food or another necessity (according to the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research).
- An average of 15 workers per week at the warehouse serve 208 churches on a regular basis and 83 more churches that pick up food for special events.