"Is there some kind of catch?"
Incredulous Midtowners were a little wary of the sign advertising "free veggies" in the Snowden Elementary School parking lot last Saturday. But that did not stop them from approaching the truck full of fresh corn and bags full of produce.
"People drive up and say, 'What's the gimmick?'" says Barry Anderson, pastor at Iona Community of Faith, the church behind the veggie free-for-all. "We just tell them there is no gimmick. We're doing this because we care about people who like corn and people who have needs. This is how we live out our faith."
I grabbed a bag of corn while I was there, and like many others, I felt strange taking a free bag when I have the means to pay for it. But Anderson reassured me the same way he reassures all other visitors. "We're just sharing this bounty. We don't expect anything in return."
The vegetables are from the Garden of Eatin', a partnership between Iona Community of Faith here in Memphis and Poplar Grove Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Halls, Tennessee, about an hour and a half north of Memphis. Members of the two churches met at a presbytery meeting, where they discovered they had compatible ministries: Poplar Grove Cumberland had the land to plant a sizable vegetable garden, and Iona had a community in need of fresh fruits and vegetables.
As long as the garden is yielding, the Iona group collects produce and delivers bags to residents in the Vollintine-Evergreen neighborhood. Then, each July, a Poplar Grove congregant with a corn and soybean farm in Halls donates more than two trucks full of corn, which Iona offers to the general public along with items from the garden. Cantaloupe, tomatoes, squash, purple hull peas, cucumbers, peppers, and corn are available for free if you happen to be around Midtown midday on select Saturdays.
Iona's food ministry doesn't stop there. They have also made a name for themselves within the homeless community — not as Iona but as "the burrito guys."
Each Tuesday, a group of volunteers meets at the Memphis Theological Seminary kitchen, where they assemble simple but tasty burritos and pack them up with donated bottles of water. Anderson says a number of women from the community bake cookies and brownies to add to the packages.
At 5 p.m., volunteers visit Cossitt Library downtown, then the visitor's center, Confederate Park, and Court Square. Because there is no mandatory sermon involved in the meal, Anderson says the volunteers have gained the trust of many homeless individuals, who have even led the volunteers to so-called cat holes, secretive places where many homeless people go to stay out of sight. The "burrito guys" are now a regular Tuesday night feature.
"Instead of just running across folks, people have gotten to where they're waiting for us. We'll have 20 people waiting," Anderson says. "We're now making 130 to 140 burritos every week."
Burritos have been a powerful entry point for Iona volunteers, who have been able to provide everything from bug spray and blankets to medical care for some particularly guarded homeless men and women.
"Most hospitality is done around food," Anderson says. "You're much more comfortable having a meeting if you're eating at the same time. It's just a natural thing."
Check out Iona on Facebook at Iona: A Community of Faith, or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Iona Community of Faith, 1790 Faxon (213-6252)