Humanitarian crises often reduce personal pain to numbers: one mouth fed, one life saved, or one life lost. In 2020, Jesus El Rey Assembly of God has expanded their food pantry into a budding nonprofit, and are ready to double the number of people they serve. Nevertheless, their ability to care for the soul remains uncompromised. Their love, and their holistic, high- quality approach to assistance, is key to transforming the neglected into the nurtured.
Part 1: Feeding the Body
Pastor and chiropractor, Manuel Izquierdo developed Jesus El Rey with the intent of serving first-generation immigrants. Their members are from many different countries, most are Spanish-speaking, and about a third are undocumented. With uncertainty and upheaval as a backdrop, it is no surprise that crisis response and food security are Jesus El Rey’s specialties.
Six years ago, inspired by their pastor, Irma Moran and her husband began directing the church’s food pantry, Panes y Peces, by making a serious study of best practices for food banks. Word-of-mouth has created steady growth in demand. As if drawn magnetically to its Spanish namesake, the nonprofit food supplier, Loaves and Fishes, became the church’s biggest partner and source for fresh food. This capacity increase was providential, as COVID-19 threatened to overwhelm the largest Greenville nonprofits with food instability this spring. The church rapidly multiplied their pantry efforts. Thankfully, the church’s long-time focus on community collaborations paid off, allowing them to quickly integrate a broad spectrum of new partnerships. A short list of organizations that help them fund, locate, and distribute food includes Loaves & Fishes, Taylor Boys Produce, United Way, Greer Relief, Christ Episcopal’s Faith in Action group, Strengthening Families, Grace Church, Greenville Unity Church, Latinos United, and Hispanic Alliance.
“We serve around 85 to 100 families every week. Sometimes people come in the middle of the week,” explains Antonia Camacho, Jesus El Rey administrator and coordinator of the community-facing aspects of the operation. Irma and Antonia are sisters, and the two use their skill sets to divide and conquer. On distribution days, Antonia and her team will work the car line while Irma and her team will work with the supplies. “It is a big blessing for me that my sister works here!” says Antonia warmly.
Panes y Peces will be renamed to “Feed the City,” a nonprofit designed around a scalable model for use in local Hispanic churches, but also to reach across cultures to anyone in need. They serve families across the Upstate from as far away as Walhalla. Jesus El Rey currently works miracles out of their tiny basement kitchenette. Their greatest need is an outdoor, walk-in refrigeration unit. “If we have that, we will be able to serve 200 families a week, at least,” Irma insists, doubling their current capacity and preventing the church from having to turn down donations that they cannot safely store. “We would love to have it, but we don’t have the money on hand, [the average cost of a new car] so we are looking for donations,” she explains. “We are asking God: “Please provide!”
Part 2: Feeding the Soul
“The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of wellness.” explains the Pastor Izquierdo.
The work Jesus El Rey’s work is lauded not because of how many they serve, but the manner in which they serve - every initiative rooted in the intent of the famous “Golden Rule.” When Panes y Peces began, Irma was saddened by the poor nutritional quality of available food. She vowed to source only the highest quality products - to feed the needy as they, themselves, would like to eat. They source from Whole Foods and prevent waste by working with a NC group to “glean” excellent produce that would otherwise rot in the fields. Now, families who could not afford staples can enjoy organic produce, and healthy treats such as cotton candy grapes, fresh cherries and strawberries. Antonia gleefully recalls the reaction from an Iranian father who has come to rely on their food: “One day he exclaimed, ‘Oh my God, it’s a long line! Oh, well. I’m still here... This food is the best we can eat, so I’ll wait whatever time.’”
Irma teaches her volunteers to identify with recipients, and put their hearts into the process, “I always say to the volunteers, ‘Prepare these boxes in the way that you would like to receive them.’” Some of the volunteers need no extra effort to identify with this perspective as Irma explains: “One day,” Irma says, recalling the stress of being understaffed, “the people who were receiving the food began to ask me, ‘Do you need help? Just let me know what day you need me!’ Since the beginning of this year, the people who receive the food are the same people that have been helping us.”
The car line experience for recipients resembles a drive-thru holistic center for social services and spiritual care. “Every Friday is different,” says Antonia, “They are more like church days because people come to get food and ask to pray with us.” “While in line, we can do a little encouragement,” says Pastor Izaquierdo, “ if they are having problems with their family or with the virus. Those are precious moments….Folks see this as the highlight of their week.” These conversations are vital for empowering recipients to move from food insecurity to greater stability through the resource navigation that the church provides in-house, and through their partnerships. Frequently, families that come for food leave with bills paid, and hope renewed.
“Each one of us has a particular gift, and when we come together we make a beautiful mosaic,” explains the Pastor. “When pieces of the mosaic have not found their gifting due to a lack of education, opportunity, or hope, the whole image as a community suffers.” It’s counterintuitive, but he says, “often needs and crises are the most effective tool to bring out the best in people... Universal trials lead to new horizons of possibilities.” Jesus El Rey perfects the hope in each individual, feeding every source of personal hunger, transforming aid recipients into empowered volunteers, and welcoming the community to become the work of art it was intended to be.
Contact Pastor Manuel Izquierdo to Support the Work of Jesus El Rey: firstname.lastname@example.org