United Church of Huntsville helps those displaced by COVID-19 with food—and hospitality

Listen to this Post via Text-to-Speech Narration

by Mike Stroud
(revised 8/15/2021)

The COVID-19 pandemic that reared its ugly and poisonous head on the world in the Spring of 2020 seemed to spare no one. It hit all, rich and poor alike, with gruesome and violent effects upon bodily, economic, mental, social, and even spiritual health. Even Huntsville, Alabama, a place known to many Americans as a vital hotbed of aerospace and defense research and engineering with a strongly educated, well-to-do population, did not escape its ravages. A small church with around 150 members and an average Sunday attendance of around 40 to 50 people would seem a most unlikely place to mount an attack upon the hunger that resulted from employment losses due to precipitously declining sales of restaurant food, motel rooms, and manufactured products.

But United Church of Huntsville (UCC) did just that, beginning on March 21 of that year. UCH member Alix Morehouse, a longtime community volunteer and activist, has for years worked to alleviate problems in Huntsville such as inadequate housing and little civic attention to the needs of the non-affluent, who are often invisible in such a prosperous metropolitan area, with a very high (by Southern standards) per capita income. Two local residents, Aylene Valentin and Ava Caldwell, both advocates on behalf of Spanish-speaking residents of northern Alabama, many of whom have no documentation and are thus fearful of reaching out for help because of potential arrest and deportation or else are unable to travel to agencies that would otherwise assist them, established an organization called Huntsville Helping Hands. The grassroots group was started in late 2019, with its first event a Christmas party for immigrant children.

Ms. Valentin and Ms. Caldwell, in association with their friend Ms. Morehouse, decided to work in conjunction with UCH, whose Church Council approved both women’s idea to set up a food pantry on site. This was enabled in no small measure by UCH’s suspension of in-person worship after March 8, 2020, leaving a large amount of unused space in the Fellowship Hall that was ideal for the physical storage of food and other supplies, for easy distribution to clients. Initial promotion was amazingly easy, given the availability of social media platforms and word of mouth toward potential recipients. Often a church pastor and both women coordinate efforts to inform them and bring them to the facilities in southeastern Huntsville, located some distance away from where many actually live, often up to 70 miles for some clients.

And it is old-fashioned in the best sort of way in that the only information clients have to provide is the household name and size, not extensive and intrusive probing into other qualifications, as more mainstream services would likely require. This is in many ways as if friends and family were helping each other, showing not only graciousness to the individuals and families, but a warm hospitality as well, as people once received in times of more social trust. At UCH, those times never went away, period. Recipients were originally a mix of races, but given the emergence of alternative means of food support for Euro- and African-Americans, non-citizen Latinos have emerged as the main constituency for UCH and Huntsville Helping Hands’ provisions.

None of this would have been possible without the coordination and oversight of yet another devoted UCH member, Marilyn Puett, chairwoman of the Diaconate (Board of Deacons), who brings her insight and administrative skills to the work. Several other people in the church also work to purchase the food items and deliver them to the clients, most notably Lisa McKinnery (Ms. Morehouse’s spouse), Peace Smith, and Vicki Smith (the latter two unrelated). To this point in 2021, some 16,500 persons/households have been served with nourishing food, which at the pantry’s peak, was distributed twice weekly. An additional 2,000 have been served via a small enclosed pantry box outside the UCH building erected by a young church member, Meredith Tucker, and through members’ financial support of other Huntsville-area organizations taking care of the hungry and homeless.

Since May 9 of this year, UCH has returned to weekly in-person worship, but the pantry continues on a biweekly basis. And UCH people have been most generous in supporting it financially and with labor, time, and talent, with some $83,982 in money alone having been donated as of July 31—from a congregation whose annual operating budget only amounts to slightly over $139,000. The closest the congregation ever came to this scale of generosity was in response to the massive tornado outbreak in the South and Midwest on April 3, 1974, with gifts of some $26,000 in 2021 money. Needless to say, the pantry has shattered that previous high-water mark by a large margin.

All in all, Ms. Morehouse summed it all up when she gave an address to the worship recording (due to COVID) made on June 28, 2020, “So we’ve been feeding Jesus here at United Church of Huntsville for about three months now. Jesus is a Latino woman who is sick with COVID-19 and lost her job. And Jesus is a Black woman who has been laid off from a restaurant. Jesus is a White man who is elderly and disabled … Jesus comes in many different colors, and shapes, and sizes, but we have fed Jesus almost 8,000 times by this point.” For those versed in Holy Scripture, it takes little or no imagination to recall the words of Matthew 25:34-46 or even John 21:15-17.

For more information about the United Church of Huntsville food pantry, take a look at these two YouTube videos below.

To donate to UCH’s work providing for northern Alabama’s hungry, visit www.uchurch.org and click on the “GIVE” button towards the top right of the page. There, use the “tithe.ly” platform, and designate “disaster relief” in the memo/comment line. Or, use the traditional method by check via the U.S. Mail to:

United Church of Huntsville
7906 Whitesburg Drive South
Huntsville, AL. 35802

Again, write “disaster relief” in the memo line.

The Rev. Brian C. Byrne has been pastor of UCH since 2019.