Filling up on food and faith

Edmondson Village church provides residents with health screenings, job opportunities and 80,000 pounds of groceries

August 24, 2008|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

They may have been lured to the community event in West Baltimore yesterday by the promise of free groceries, but the hundreds of people who turned out stayed hours for a message of hope.

At the event, called A Better Life, the crush of people received bags filled with frozen meats, canned goods, bread and paper products - in all, about 80,000 pounds of food and other necessities delivered in two tractor-trailer loads to the Westside Skills Center on Edmondson Avenue. The $30,000 worth of groceries were purchased and distributed by members of Kingdom Life Church.

"This is real food, steaks and chicken, not government cheese and no-name rice," said Anita Phillips, wife of the church's pastor, the Rev. Michael D. Phillips. "We have enough for 7,000 people. But this is about so much more than things that will run out in a few weeks."

The church offered its Edmondson Village neighbors ways to improve their quality of life in a community that is especially hard hit by unemployment, foreclosures and rising energy and food costs, congregation members said.

"You would have to be living underground not to know how hard the economy is now," said church spokesman Leo Bryant. "Our church is right in an area filled with despair. You drive up and down Edmondson Avenue and see that despair. This fair is telling people there is hope."

Food wasn't the only resource offered. Attendees lined up for free haircuts and makeovers to ready themselves for on-site job interviews or for the first day back to school. Pearl Williams clutched a packet of informational brochures she had gathered at various booths and watched as her 8-year-old son told a barber just how short he wanted his hair cut, a service she said would have cost her about $12.

"This is such a big help," Williams said. "Communities throughout the state need to do more of this."

A long line moved steadily through the jobs tent, where various organizations, including the Baltimore City and Baltimore County police departments, were seeking applicants. Dion Clark, a senior recruiter for FedEx, had passed out 1,000 fliers in the first hour and had scheduled many interviews for carriers and handlers.

"There is a lot of interest here in finding a job," he said.

The event also featured a focus on health, with blood pressure and diabetes screenings, and testing for HIV and glaucoma. There was also information on energy assistance programs and a voter registration drive.

"The idea is to get people here with the giveaway and let them leave with hope," Bryant said. "Our pastor told us it is time to go outside the walls of the church."

The church, founded about four years ago in a former public school building, numbers about 1,100 parishioners. Dressed in white T-shirts with "Live Better" in bold blue letters, church members took on myriad tasks. About 200 arrived before 6 a.m. to bag groceries. They styled hair, painted children's faces, made balloon sculptures and doled out snow balls.

"We are not just about giving away food," said Phillips, the pastor. "We are giving away resources as well, and services for the whole person. No one else was doing that here, and we decided to, no matter what the cost."

Phillips, 33, grew up in the Park Heights neighborhood, the son and grandson of preachers.

"Edmondson Village was once a thriving economic area, and we want to recapture that," he said. "I see despair and drug deals on these streets, and I can't let that happen. It would be cowardly to do nothing."

Before Phillips distributed the "physical food," he preached briefly, offering the crowd what he called spiritual food.

"We are here today to help you live a better life," he said. "You have options, and misery could be one of them. But make a decision today to choose life, a better life."

Neighborhood resident Donna Thompson came away with a new hairdo, a few job possibilities and several weeks' worth of meals.

"It is a blessing, all of it," she said. "This day has made me feel so beautiful that I know it will last more than one day."

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