by Warren Bird
Volunteers from The Life Church (Memphis, TN) distribute what have become known as red bags of hope.
Pastor John Siebeling knew that he and his church couldn’t look the other way when they read the hunger statistics and heard the stories.
The front door of The Life Church of Memphis, TN, was only 15 minutes away from an area where more babies were dying than in some Third World countries. On top of that, The Life Church was a short drive from a zip code known as the “hungriest zip code in the United States”—where 74% of children went to bed hungry every night.
“When I told the church that, they were like, ‘How could we let that happen?’ ” John says. “We talked to school teachers in our church, and they told us some of the children show up Monday in the same clothes they wore Friday and they hadn’t eaten all weekend. Their stomachs were growling, it was impossible to teach, and the kids were not learning.”
“I told our church, ‘I don’t have all the answers and we aren’t sure how it’s all going to work. But we’re going to start feeding those kids.’ ”
And feed they did.
Feeding Children, One Truck at a Time
Feeding Memphis: What started with one used truck has expanded to many trucks, all to serve the city in the name of Jesus.
John talked to his friend Matthew Barnett, who had started the Los Angeles Dream Center and was at the time buying old ice cream delivery trucks (because of their refrigeration units) to distribute food in poor neighborhoods. John and his wife personally bought the first truck for The Life Church for $5,000 (“We didn’t want to ask anyone to do something we weren’t willing to do,” he says), and the church purchased a second truck.
On the Sunday John laid down the challenge at The Life Church, one by one he was handed $5,000 checks until he had $75,000 in one day—enough to buy 15 trucks. “It sort of went crazy from there,” he adds. “We didn’t plan for this to happen, but spontaneous giving just broke out.”
The Life Church started by partnering with schools in the needy neighborhoods—first showing up after school on Friday in their red T-shirts to distribute red bags with enough groceries to feed a family for a weekend. Thus, the name “The Red Shirt Church.” John explains, “It just sort of became our thing.”
The ministry grew to the point that The Life Church now serves at six schools and feeds 2,600 children each weekend. Every Thursday night, 70-80 people show up at The Life Church’s distribution center to pack bags of food, and crews of volunteers come on Friday afternoons to go to the schools.
In 2007 The Life Church purchased a retail shopping plaza and started the Memphis Dream Center. The plaza is home to their Generous House food and clothing pantry, their Outreach Operations Center, and other ministries.
Distributing Food and More in Jesus’ Name
Volunteers do more than hand out food—and they do it all in Jesus’ name.
“The volunteers line up outside the school with the food bags,” John explains. “When the kids come out, they give them hugs and pray for them. They tell them, ‘You’re a champion’ and give them their bags.”
“The principals of these schools are in such a difficult and stressful place trying to help these families and teach these kids. We get more requests now from principals than we can handle.”
At one particular school, some complaints had been raised about having a church organization in the school, and as a result the principal asked The Life Church volunteers to stop coming. But he soon changed his mind.
“He called and said, ‘I made a big mistake, please come back,’” says John, who adds that The Life Church members are also involved with in-school tutoring and serve on community leadership boards. “He told us the morale of the kids had actually gone down in the weeks we weren’t there. They could tell things were totally different with the kids when we weren’t able to come to that school.”
An interesting byproduct of the “Red Shirt” food bag ministry is it has galvanized even more The Life Church’s ethnically diverse congregation that closely mirrors the Memphis demographics of 62% African Americans, 30% white and 8% other.
“The African Americans in our church are so excited about what we’re doing,” John says. “A lot of them came out of these neighborhoods and their families have broken out of the cycle of poverty. But they say, ‘Thank God we’re going back to our neighborhood to help people we grew up with.”
The Life Church has extended their school year Feed Memphis program to throughout the summer to provide hot meals, fun games, and family grocery bags in a low-income area.
As the pastor of a church that has tripled in attendance in the past eight years, with four “Mid-South” campuses in the greater Memphis area and two international campuses, John advises other church leaders that size of the congregation does matter when it comes to sustaining a ministry as taxing as this one. The demands of time, energy and money are all high.
“Be careful what you promise and don’t make promises you can’t sustain,” John suggests. “If you make the commitment and can’t follow through, that will hurt your credibility in the community more than it will help it. Make sure you are led by the Spirit and count the cost of following through, because not everybody can do this.”
With that nugget of truth, John is quick to add that every community has needs—you just have to dig in and find them. And every church can do something on some level to meet those needs, often very overtly in Jesus’ name.
“We just want to keep getting entrenched further into the fabric and culture of our city,” says John, who with his wife spent three years serving as a missionary in Africa. “When you do that, you find there is a lot of need out there. You don’t have to go overseas to find need. It’s all around.”