Shelbyville—As she serves up oatmeal and sausage casserole, Susie Stivers sings an old Gospel hymn in a strong voice.
It’s a bright Thursday morning; light streams in through the storefront windows of Victory Baptist Church in Shelbyville.
This is not your typical Southern Baptist Church. There are no stained glass windows, no baptismal, no steeple.
Instead, there are plastic tables with mustard bottles and Styrofoam bowls filled with onions.
Stivers greets each person who walks in the door by name. She has served as co-director of God’s Kitchen in Shelbyville since the ministry reopened in August of 2015.
“People are hungry, and sometimes this is the only meal they get in a day,” Stivers said.
According to data compiled by the University of Kentucky Center for Poverty Research, 19 percent of Kentuckians were “food insecure” in 2014, the last year of available data. That means they were limited in their ability to acquire adequate food and may have gone hungry because there wasn’t enough money for food.
God’s Kitchen provides free breakfast and lunch for people in the Shelbyville community three days a week. The ministry is a partnership between 12 area churches that work together to provide meals, as well as a short devotion, every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday.
The ministry, which serves an average of 30 to 40 people each day that it’s open, operates out of Victory Baptist Church, a storefront church on Main Street. With the help of the other churches, Victory also runs a clothes closet and food pantry.
Many of the people who drop in for a meal struggle with homelessness, mental disabilities or financial hardships. Many of them work, but can’t seem to make ends meet. Many of them are also members of Victory Baptist.
As people are finishing up their breakfast, a young preacher walks through the front door. Marc Webb is wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and he carries a well-worn Bible under his arm. He begins at the front of the room, greeting each person, taking time to chat about their lives.
When he reaches an unfamiliar face, he asks if he has a church home. He invites him to Sunday worship at Victory.
Webb has served as pastor of Victory Baptist Church for the last three-and-a-half years.
He says he is thankful for the opportunity to minister to many people who would otherwise never step into a church.
“With some that come in, it’s not only food needs,” he said. “There are physical needs, mental needs, emotional needs and spiritual needs.”
And the community at Victory Baptist is committed to meeting those needs.
Many of those who come for meals at God’s Kitchen receive government assistance. Others would qualify, but don’t receive benefits.
Webb estimates that as many as two-thirds of his own congregation receive some sort of government assistance.
The latest data from the Kentucky Cabinet of Health and Family Services shows 697,056 Kentuckians received food stamps in 2015, with an average benefit about $250 a month.
Still, some people are going hungry.
“Victory Baptist is here to fill in the gaps,” Webb said.
Stivers recalls one of the regulars at God’s Kitchen.
“He never makes it through a whole month with groceries,” Stivers said.
“He’s so embarrassed. He will say, ‘I’m so sorry, I hate to bother you.’ It just really humiliates him to say anything.”
Stivers began giving him leftovers from the meals the church services. He had to eat them cold because he doesn’t have any way to heat them.
Now she’s hoping she can help him get a microwave.
“We’ve noticed in talking with people on food stamps that they will be fine at the first of the month, but the further into the month, the harder and harder it is,” Stivers said.
Many people who receive meals at God’s Kitchen don’t receive any government benefits—even though they could easily qualify.
Christopher Bollinger, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Kentucky, said a variety of reasons keep people who qualify from receiving food stamps.
“Sometimes it’s pride, sometimes its political views,” Bollinger said. “The second reason is often lack of knowledge of how to navigate the system.”
Getting—and keeping—food stamps can be a complicated process for many.
In order to qualify for food stamps, you have to prove you don’t make enough money or have enough assets.
“For some people it’s really a big burden to prove that you don’t have anything,” Bollinger said. “It can become onerous for those who legitimately need the help to sometimes get it.”
In 2013, the latest year with available data, only 88 percent of Kentuckians that were eligible for food stamps actually received them.
Webb says that often the church is the first place people will turn in a difficult situation.
“It really is a perfect example of people bearing each other’s burdens,” Webb said. “You could literally pick out any single person that comes and they are probably battling something pretty serious at the moment. There really is an atmosphere of people being there for each other, knowing that they are not alone in whatever they are struggling with. They can lean on, not only the leaders here, but the fellow believers as well.”
As the last of the visitors leave on Thursday afternoon, Stivers is still singing:
“As I climb this gospel ladder always heeding every sign, I know my Savior’s with me and He’s teaching me to climb. Every day that I’m climbing there’s a battle for me. Every step on this ladder is another victory.”(BP)