by Susan Brown
Many people see community needs and feel overwhelmed. Theresa Sandifer feels – inspired. “I’d like to say that I feed people in the name of God,” explains the founder of Shepherd’s Market. “I don’t just stand in the doorway and hand them a bag of food and not ever know who I’m serving.” The personal touch from volunteers, and the decision to let them shop throughout the food pantry for hot and cold items their families enjoy, makes the ministry at St. John’s United Methodist Church unique.
And it’s popular. Since its debut in July 2012, the market has served more than 2,000 unduplicated families. The vast majority of the 380-400 families served each month are the working poor, according to Sandifer. The church’s strategic location, near the corner of Highland Road and Gardere Lane, provides easy access for families from the four zip codes they serve: 70808, 70809, 70810 and 70820.
“Mainly it’s single moms that just can’t make ends meet,” she says. Others have unforeseen medical bills or other expenses that make it impossible to meet the everyday cost of living.
“I really want them to be able to come in and be served with dignity and respect,” she says. “I truly feel like I had a call from God to do this.”
Sandifer’s desire to make a difference took on a distinct shape and urgency during a Walk to Emmaus retreat (http://lcwe.org). “I had gone up to the altar to pray and when I got up I heard in my head, ‘Feed my sheep.’”
“Coincidentally about six months earlier, our church had to make a really tough decision to close down a 40-year ministry here, the daycare center,” she says. “So we had this whole building that was not being used throughout the week.” Then-pastor Juan Huertas welcomed the idea of a client choice food pantry to serve their Gardere neighbors. “Everybody that I spoke to was just like – yes – this is what we’re supposed to be doing.”
People told her it was going to be hard. “I didn’t know the first thing about operating a food pantry, but I had been up to Hope Ministries and volunteered there with various groups,” she explains. “I also knew that what I was envisioning.” She had no nonprofit status, but the decade-old Opening Doors nonprofit offered to take on Shepherd’s Market as a project. That allowed her to apply for grants and become part of the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank. Both Jefferson United Methodist Church and St. John’s supplement the supplies with a grocery bag Sunday once a month.
“Everything just fell right into place,” she says. “That’s how I know it was a God thing. There were no obstacles at all.”
Sandifer believes in food for both body and soul. Volunteers Fran Anderson and Duane Craig treat 35-40 clients to a generous breakfast as they wait their turn to shop. Pastor Jay Hogewood sets the tone for spiritual conversations through a devotional designed to encourage those who are struggling.
Always, the focus is on the needs of their neighbors. They purchase items not covered by food stamps such as shampoo and toilet paper. And, after discovering that many worked traditional hours – precluding an 8 a.m. Tuesday/Thursday starting time – they opened a Monday night shift.
“It didn’t make sense to take off work to come get free food,” Sandifer says. “The night shift which is very unique in Baton Rouge.” Sandifer understands what it means to juggle obligations. She arrives early every shift to organize the day, then leaves for work while Derdre’ Halliburton, Cindy Adams and Lynn Cooper continue to run the pantry.
There have been surprises. There is a powerful sense of God’s presence evident to volunteers and clients, Sandifer says. And, it’s not unusual for clients to come for companionship, a place to be heard, or an opportunity to sit in a welcoming environment.
The holiday season brings special opportunities. Shepherd’s Market holds the Great Turkey Giveaway the Saturday before Christmas. For $15 donors can provide a holiday meal for a family. Last year, they gave away 450 turkeys along with fresh produce.
Current needs also include volunteers to unload food at 9 a.m. on the second and fourth Friday of every month. L’auberge Casino and Capital One Bank have consistently provided volunteer help, along with frequent support from local students who want to earn service hours.
Looking down the road, Sandifer hopes to expand. “I have this vision of something called the Shepherd’s Outreach Center where we offer much more than food. We can help people break out of the cycle of poverty, not just put a Band-Aid on it.” She hopes to include financial literacy training, GED “I’m pretty sure God has placed it on somebody’s heart,” she says. “Working together we can make it happen.”
Sandifer encourages people not to ignore their sense of God’s call to act – but to take a leap of obedience. “I think people need not to discount that thought that comes into their mind or that tug,” she says. “Go ahead and act on it, start talking it up, because I guarantee you there are other people that had the thought, too, and all of a sudden you’ve got a group of people that can work on it together.”
For more information, explore www.shepherdsmarket.org.