People in Baton Rouge go hungry, and Broadmoor United Methodist Church thought it could help.

Late last year, the church started its Red Stick Together Ministry. Then came the coronavirus, and more people than ever needed help feeding themselves and their families.

By early October, Red Stick Together had served 20,000 free meals. And its mission continues.

Based at a storefront on busy Florida Boulevard made available to the church, the ministry hands out hot meals to anyone who drives up on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

The 20,000-meal milestone was marked on Oct. 6 with balloons and party decorations.  The meal, one of 250 given away that day, was picked up by Edwin Del Valle, who also volunteers for the ministry.

“It was awesome,” said Christi Rangel, the church’s communication director. “We had a lot of our staff and volunteers who weren’t even supposed to work that night come, and we made just a big party out of it.”

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What Red Stick Together became is not what the church envisioned when it started the ministry on Dec. 22.

Borrowing the idea from a Seattle church, the plan was to offer free dine-in meals so that church members could meet and develop relationships with those who came. Flyers at area businesses and social media were used to get the word out. 

“It was more about having a meal and sharing conversations, getting to know neighbors, just kind of going back to the original church began where people would gather around a table,” Rangel said. “You get to build relationships and community.”

Roughly four guests showed up for that first dinner, but it caught on, and as many as 60 people attended subsequent dinners, which were held each Wednesday. It also accomplished its larger goal of having a deeper impact on those who came, said the Rev. Donnie Wilkinson, Broadmoor’s pastor.

“People who were coming first as guests were becoming active serving as volunteers,” he said. “They were wondering, ‘Can I come early next week and help set up? Can I help play in the band? Can I help greet and clean up afterward?’ It was coming to a point where … we weren’t doing ministry for them; we were doing ministry with them and becoming one group of people.”

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When COVID-19 began shutting down schools, churches and businesses, Broadmoor knew it couldn’t continue the dine-in experience, but food had already been bought for the following Wednesday. The church decided to offer 100 takeout meals and see if people would show up on March 18.

“We gave away 100 meals in five minutes,” Rangel said. “So, we were, like, ‘OK, we’ve got to do more of this. People need this.’ We’ve never given away 100 meals before.”

The next week, they gave out 200 meals, Wilkinson said. They decided to expand the ministry to three nights a week.

Cars begin lining up as early as 4:30 p.m. for serving that begins at 6 p.m., Rangel said.

The meals are cooked at the church. When the demand became apparent, Broadmoor hired professional chef Steven Martinez to prepare them. He’s been able to provide nutritious meals economically, but the sheer number of them means this ministry is far more costly than the church's budget.

But donations of food and money have made it work, Wilkinson said, which he likens to the gospel account of Jesus feeding 5,000 followers using the meager amount of food carried by a small boy.

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“You bring what you have to Christ and he blesses it and he multiplies it, and people both in our church and the community and beyond, as they found out about this ministry, have provided abundantly so we can continue to meet this need,” Wilkinson said. “It is something that has renewed my faith seeing how God has provided the resources we needed to give not just my personal daily bread but the daily bread for hundreds of people three times a week.”

Broadmoor wants to expand the food ministry to other parts of town, Wilkinson said.

“The two groups in Baton Rouge and across the country that are at the greatest level of food insecurity are children and people over 65,” he said. “Over the last several decades, the middle class in America has been hollowed out in many ways, and people are slipping out of that source of stability.”

Email George Morris at gmorris@theadvocate.com.