The Gospel of Matthew gives an account of Jesus performing a miracle by feeding 5,000 men – plus women and children – despite only having five loaves of bread and two fish. Following in his footsteps, a church in Georgia held an event Sunday in which it provided a week's worth of food to nearly 5,000 people in one day – and it was all free.
Organizers of Jesus in the Park, an annual event put on by Trinity United Methodist Church in Rome, Ga., saw 1,600 families each take home 50 pounds of shelf-stable food at absolutely no cost to them.
In addition, members of the community could also spend the afternoon at Rome's Ridge Ferry Park listening to free concerts, eating free hot dogs and cotton candy, and playing free games.
Grant Magness, director of youth at Trinity UMC and the organizer of the event, said the church offered everything for free as a means of making sure that no one, regardless of their income level, would be excluded.
“The idea is that, in the kingdom of God, it doesn't matter if we have money or not,” he told The Christian Post on Monday.
Cathy Aiken Freeman, the pantry operations coordinator for Action Ministries-Rome, told the Rome News-Tribune that people began lining up for the bags of food at 5:45 a.m. even though the event wasn't scheduled to start until noon.
Magness said that by 2:30 p.m. about 50,000 pounds of food had already been given away. He estimates that somewhere between 75,000 and 100,000 pounds had been distributed by the end of the event. Any leftover food items were returned to a food pantry to be given away on another day.
The church's youth group, Magness said, was the real organizer of Jesus in the Park. Not only did they help staff the event Sunday afternoon, but they also took the lead when it came to planning and fund-raising.
“Our church is very outreach minded,” David Campbell, pastor of Trinity UMC, told The Christian Post. “And when you have this kind of need on this kind of scale, not only do our folks catch that vision and get behind, but it is contagious.”
Two years ago, Campbell said, the Atlanta Community Food Bank (ACFB) contacted Action Ministries-Rome, a food-assistance ministry that helps with Jesus in the Park, and said it had received stimulus money and could offer 100,000 pounds of food to a venue that could distribute it. Jesus in the Park became that venue for two years, but the ACFB was unable to make the same offer this year.
Campbell estimates the total cost of this year's event to be nearly $20,000 once all the expenses have been totaled. He said that members of the community and local businesses contributed about 40 percent of the total donations this year, while his congregation covered the other 60 percent.
“We want anybody who wants to come to feel welcome,” said Campbell. “The idea is we want a kind of a small picture of, 'What will the kingdom of God look like?' It will look like a big celebration where nobody feels like, 'Well, I can't come because I can't afford it.' Nobody feels like, 'I'm going to be out of place.' All you have to do is show up.”