(Kansas City, Mo.- January 2009) – It’s Monday morning and the first rays of sunlight are only beginning to streak across the horizon as Darrell Cantrell climbs into his red pickup truck in Shawnee, Kansas.
Cantrell eases his truck into the early morning traffic, where he will spend the next three hours driving to discount grocery stories and food pantries. At a Sam’s Club he purchases gallon-sized cans of green beans, noodles and mushrooms. At a local food bank, he buys 300 pounds of hamburger for $1 a pound.
By 10:30 a.m., Cantrell pulls into the parking lot of Independence Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in downtown Kansas City. There he’s greeted by four women who will help him prepare the hundreds of meals that will be served to the needy that evening.
Cantrell has made this early morning drive each week for the past 2 ½ years. He is the main chef for Micah Ministries, a program that started over seven years ago, initially as a counseling ministry, until organizers realized that the most pressing need in the community was simply for a good, hot meal.
"I’ve worked with this program in various ways since shortly after it started," reflected Cantrell, a retired railroad executive, who now travels around the world consulting on railroad issues. "Micah Ministries is gratifying to me because I see the face of Jesus in the people we serve. Each of them is so grateful and so thankful that we care."
"The people here are really nice and the food is always really good", said Kelly Smith, a 47-year old woman who says she has been sleeping in the back of a van for several weeks.
"I do all the cooking for the seven people who live in our household," noted another participant, Kevin Kennedy, 38, who was seated at a table with his family. "This allows us to all be together and it helps our budget."
On this cold, blustery evening, 522 people are allowed inside the church basement starting at 5:30 p.m., and a record number of meals — 881 — is served. The number of meals served is higher than the number of participants since attendees are allowed more than one plate of food. On this night several dozen people are turned away at the door about 7 p.m., simply because the ministry ran out of food. Tonight’s menu is beef stroganoff, green beans, salad, bread and butter, cake and beverages. Cantrell and his crew have been known to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches toward the end of the evening when food sometimes runs low.
He and his wife Sharon are two of the mainstays of the weekly program. Along with the two or three women who help Darrell cook, the Cantrells are joined each week by a core group of about a dozen people who serve and clean up. A variety of others, including Disciples, non-denominational Christians and Girl Scouts help out on occasion. On this late fall day, 45 people are present from Temple B’nai Jehudah, a large Jewish temple in Overland Park and 25 from several other organizations.
Lee Chiaramonte is the Executive Director of Micah Ministries and pastor of Independence Boulevard. She came up with the idea for Micah Ministries in 2001 as a way to address the urban needs of the community in which the church was located. Decades ago, Independence Boulevard was a large church with 2,000 members, but urban flight and changing neighborhood demographics necessitated a new direction for the church’s mission and outreach.
"We see Micah Ministries as an example of stewardship," said Chiaramonte. "Our food ministry is a new way to do church. This brings people into our sanctuary and sacred space in new ways."
Chiaramonte says there was never an attempt to make the ministry a soup kitchen. Therefore, no one queues up in lines for a meal. Instead each person finds a seat at one of several long rectangular tables and is served by a volunteer.
The ministry operates as a 501 © 3 not-for-profit. Funding also comes from churches in the Greater Kansas City area, including several Disciples congregations such as County Club, St. Andrew and Blue Springs First Christian. Attendees can also get free clothing and toiletries each week from a clothing pantry – which for some people is as important as the meal. Over the years, the ministry also has benefitted from the free services of a lawyer, an Episcopal priest who taught basic education classes, and referral networks with battered women’s shelters and mental health agencies.
"We accept that there will always be the poor," said Chiaramonte. "Our goal is to meet people where they are to form relationships so that they will see us as part of the Body of Christ."
It is now close to 9 p.m. and Darrell Cantrell’s 14-hour day is beginning to wind to an end. This evening, he has overseen food distribution, checked in on the clothing ministry, and has just finished stacking the pots and pans that will be used at next Monday’s meal service.
"I want people to know the commitment that goes into this type of work," says a weary Cantrell as he heads out the basement door toward his truck for his 30-mile ride home. "That commitment is not about us, but about the people we serve."