Soup Kitchen Adapts Amid Adversity, Serves Fresh Helpings of Hope

 In All Church of God, CHOG, Great Lakes, Loving and Serving, The Way

By Carl Stagner

From its humble beginnings to its present widespread impact, one essential community ministry at First Church of God in Chillicothe, Ohio, has consistently been about service. Following the pattern of ultimate hospitality exemplified in the Scriptures, the Open Table Soup Kitchen strives to serve like Jesus served, multiplying not only generous helpings of food for the masses, but also fresh helpings of hope. Though relatively new on the local scene, the ministry’s learned to adapt amid adversity and, in a manner only God could have orchestrated, has grown in quality and reach.

Marla Graves first espoused the vision. People on the street would find refuge and sustenance within the walls of the Family Life Center at First Church of God; this would be no ordinary food distribution—there would be a full-service dinner in a setting donned with decorations and decked out for making a difference. Only half a decade ago, the vision came to life, garnering the attention and patronage of perhaps 20 individuals, each delighted to dine in dignity. Marla’s work was cut short, however, with a cancer diagnosis; she went to be with the Lord in early 2019.

Security camera image of cars lined up for a recent meal distribution.

The leadership gap necessitated a bridge, and volunteer efforts sustained the efforts. With a heart for service, Sandy Sexton stepped up, but admittedly lacked the gift of cooking. But isn’t that just the way the Spirit works sometimes? He equips those he’s called, and that’s precisely what happened to Sandy. Fast forward a few years and the families blessed by her culinary creations number in the hundreds.

But before she ever got to where she is today—and before Open Table Soup Kitchen found its groove—the ministry had to face yet another hurdle: COVID-19. The pandemic that closed the doors of churches everywhere also temporarily shut down access to the supplies made more necessary by the crisis. Incredibly, and certainly by God’s provision, a drive-through experience modified the mode of ministry for First Church of God, setting into motion a mechanism that would dramatically improve the efficiency and impact of the soup kitchen.

“When COVID came along, we didn’t even have church for a while,” Sandy remembers. “My husband and I started making forty sandwiches and assembling those with chips and a drink. We’d sit in front of the church and post about it on Facebook. We’d see about thirty people. For about three to four months, we fed them like that. Then we decided it was time to consider a drive-through.”

First Church volunteers preparing meals in the kitchen.

The results weren’t immediate, but this year’s surge in interest has caught the attention of the church and community. A record-high 154 people showed up this spring, bringing exposure to the church and the Provider of every good and perfect gift, whose name the church bears. Sandy is appreciative of the small group of volunteers that comes alongside her to make the monthly meal distribution run smoothly.

“We actually opened on Christmas Day, and on Memorial Day this year,” Sandy reflects. “My kids know this is a priority for me, so we got together on Sunday instead. We had another hundred people show up on Memorial Day—and all for biscuits and gravy!”

But they’re not just serving up biscuits and gravy. They’re serving up hope, and in generous portions. The volunteers ensure there’s a dessert—lately sugar cookies—and they often package blessing bags for the children when families are in the lineup of vehicles across and beyond the church property. It’s not an intimidating experience for the guests, as no questions are asked or conditions given to receive food. First Church of God prefers it that way, aiming to limit barriers for those who seek the help. Even the day of the month is strategic; the last Monday is selected to help people make it through until their next check.

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