Religion

50 years later: Loaves and Fishes Ministry provides more than clothes and food to needy

Director Judy Sexton and volunteer Debbie Mason of Loaves and Fishes Ministry of Macon are pictured in the store-style area of the ministry where clothes are given away without charge.
Director Judy Sexton and volunteer Debbie Mason of Loaves and Fishes Ministry of Macon are pictured in the store-style area of the ministry where clothes are given away without charge. Special to The Telegraph

When first-graders from First Presbyterian Day School visit Loaves and Fishes Ministry to give lunches to those in need, the ministry’s director, Judy Sexton, talks to them about the little boy who helped Jesus feed 5,000 people by sharing his own five loaves and two fishes.

Then she tells them another story, one about Loaves and Fishes Ministry, its work and how they themselves are helping feed a multitude.

During their visit, Sexton said children stand at the ministry’s counter and greet guests but need help stepping up on a crate to be able to look over the counter to see the people.

She said she loves lending them a hand to help them see and help others.

“The ministry we do, where you see so much need, can be very disheartening,” she said. “But the relationships keep us going. We focus on the relationships we have with those who come in for help and with our donors and partners who make it possible. They help us meet needs, and I think we help them see other people a little better, too. It’s a blessing all around.”

Loaves and Fishes is in its 50th year. Sexton said it officially began in 1967 in the basement of Tattnall Square Presbyterian Church when two independent community ministries combined: one a food ministry and the other a clothing ministry.

Not aligned with one church or denomination, Loaves and Fishes relies on many churches, groups, individuals and the community to operate, she said. While supplying food and clothes remains an important mission, greater need and greater complexities of life have caused services to expand and diversify. Some have even been cut, such as men’s shelters, which closed when related Federal funding changed direction and became unavailable.

In its efforts, Sexton said Loaves and Fishes gives help but also assists individuals and families transition from “learned helplessness” to “learned resourcefulness.”

The ministry’s weekly schedule reflects a range of services offered. Snacks are always available and showers and laundry services offered at certain times daily. Clothes are available at specified hours each day but Wednesday. Limited dental referrals are given Mondays and prescription help given Tuesdays and Fridays. Sack lunches are available at noon Tuesdays with grocery pickup on Wednesdays and grocery appointments on Fridays. Aid getting birth certificates and identification cards is Thursdays.

Officials said grocery distribution goes to 60 households a week and can only be gotten once per month per recipient. The same is true of baby and adult hygiene kits.

As far as IDs and birth certificates, Sexton said what seems an impossible task to some becomes possible with help and guidance, though it is still time consuming.

“Some services show how complicated life can be without proper identification,” Sexton said. “Getting appropriate services can be impossible. You can’t get a job or cash a check without ID and encounters with law enforcement can be much more problematic. And it has to be a Georgia ID.”

Jeanne Roddenberry has been the ministry’s volunteer ID and birth certificate specialist for five years.

“The easy part is writing a check and applying for an ID,” she said. “The hard part is having the right documentation. Probably 80 percent of people we encounter don’t have everything they need so you begin pulling it together. Imagine if you were evicted, all your belongings thrown in the street, and you lost all your paperwork. It seems every week I see new challenges that need solutions.”

While Loaves and Fishes helps with paperwork, Roddenberry said it does not pay for expenses certain roadblocks present, such as past fines due or back child support, which holds up documents. But they do help clients see how to accomplish things themselves.

“At best, it’s confusing,” she said. “There’s a lot of Catch-22s. But I like meeting people and these people are in a pickle and I can do something. When they get a job because we got their ID, I love stopping by and telling them, ‘Congratulations! You did it!’”

Sexton said Loaves and Fishes ministers to all in need but its greatest service seems to be to the working poor and those in risk of losing their housing, both of whom may only need short-term assistance.

She said they also minister to a great number of senior citizens.

“Seniors are a growing group who work hard to get by but struggle to make ends meet,” she said. “We work with about 20 percent homeless; a lot of the rest are one step away from it, and we help keep them from it. Again, a lot of working-poor families, mothers, children, veterans and elderly. Most don’t have laundry facilities and some don’t have running water even though they have a roof over their heads. Our showers mean a lot to them.”

Sexton lauded cooperation among local ministries helping different groups and said that sometimes schedules line up so that people can receive steady help from multiple providers. For example, Loaves and Fishes’ sack lunches are given on Tuesdays, the one weekday that Macon Outreach doesn’t serve free lunches.

But with all the planning and logistics, volunteer Debbie Mason, a retired nurse, said it’s still a matter of the heart.

“People come with stories that break your heart,” she said. “The thing that really gets me, though, is when people we’ve helped come back to donate to others. They’re back on their feet, have a little something, and they want to give back. Boy, that makes my day. People in hopeless situations get hope and help, then they come back to help someone else.”

At 50 years, Loaves and Fishes is re-evaluating itself and ministries, Sexton said, and she believes they’re on the upswing.

“Being here as long as we have, I think people take for granted we’ll just always be here,” she said. “But that’s not true. For the sake of those who need us, maybe we haven’t been visible enough in the community or out there telling our story and sharing our needs enough. But we have a number of new board members — younger board members — and it’s great to have the new energy. Loaves and Fishes is a vital ministry and a needed blessing to those we serve and to those who help us do it. We need each other.”

Contact writer Michael W. Pannell at mwpannell@gmail.com.

Loaves and Fishes Ministry of Macon

Address: 651 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

Phone: 478-741-1007

Leadership: Judy Sexton, director

Hours: 8:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Monday & Friday, 8:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday

Website: www.loavesandfishesministry.org

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