Who would do this?
Who, on a fixed income themselves, would spend their own money and spend considerable time providing food for thousands of people every year? Fret over meeting nutritional needs, freshness and quality? Organize the volunteers, meet their spiritual needs, and ask for zero in return?
Pastor Gussie Norwood Coley, that’s who.
The founder and leader of the humble, 18-member House of Prayer and Fellowship
operates a sizeable food pantry ministry, one of nine in the south Atla
Why does she do it? “I love it,” she says, without hesitation. “I want to help people. It’s just in my heart.”
It takes plenty of planning to get ready for the twice-weekly lines of needy people, she said. “A lot of food pantries don’t place much emphasis on the quality of the food. I do. See, what I give the people out there to eat,” she said, pointing at the parking lot, “I eat it too. That’s what I eat. If they eat a hot dog, I eat a hot dog. If they eat fresh greens and a whole chicken, so do I. So I care what the people eat. I try to buy good food for us.”
After more than a decade of leading the church, Coley in 2012 began praying for a way that she and her small flock could serve people outside the church. Her niece suggested the idea of a food pantry, and the idea “just got down in my spirit and wouldn’t let go.” Members of the congregation pitched in, too, and for the past three years fewer than a dozen members have formed most of the ministry’s volunteer force.
“We love coming here and helping out,” said Juliette “Miss J” Brown, who serves as a leader of the volunteers on the loading dock. She works for at least six hours a day, every Wednesday and Friday.
“We work hard. But nobody works as hard as Pastor. She does it all.”
In early November 2012 the church opened its food pantry, encouraging the hungry to stop by in certain hours for food giveaways. The response was an explosion of interest, and soon the church was grappling with long lines of cars and massive traffic difficulties on Walt Stephens Road. The church then hit upon a system of scheduled appointment times arranged by telephone, and the chaos turned back into order.
Money for the food, around $3,000 per month, comes from Coley’s own wallet, and those of her congregation, and is supplemented by occasional donations from the grateful recipients themselves.
Some 80-100 families are helped every week. Coley said she knows she could do so much more if a corporate sponsor would underwrite the efforts, or a sister church would partner with them year-around, or if area supermarkets would donate food to the cause. More volunteer help would be a blessing, too. “We keep hoping and praying for help from the community. We’re a small ministry with a big heart. If the Lord wants it, it will come.”
Last year, the pastor’s benevolence drew notice from her own city. Coley was cited by the City of Stockbridge in February 2015 at the African-American Heritage Celebration when it presented her an Unsung Hero Award for dedicated service and commitment to the community. Three months later she also received a Letter of Commendation signed by the mayor pro-tem of Stockbridge.
“It’s exciting,” Coley said with a thrill in her voice. “We help so many people. If we can go out there and work in the cold and rain and not complain, you know we love this job.”
TO GET HELP
The food pantry at the House of Prayer and Fellowship is at 3840 Walt Stephens Rd., Stockbridge, GA.
Call (770) 507-0154 for an appointment between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays. Bring identification. Each family is served food once monthly.