An army of volunteers from two sister churches in Lancashire, led from the front by their Vicar and Curate, has literally stepped up to the plate to provide meals for people in their local area.
Their work in serving the communities has been praised by the Diocesan Bishop Rt Rev Julian Henderson, Bishop of Blackburn. He describes it as indicative of faithful service happening in parishes all the time across Lancashire as people ‘quietly get on with the business of serving others in so many ways every day’.
Since last November Fr David Stephenson, Vicar of St James in Haslingden and St Thomas’ in nearby Musbury, together with his Curate Fr Andrew Holmes, have mobilised the army of willing hands to provide ‘simple, good honest home-cooked food’ … particularly for people who are alone and isolated.
Both clergymen have cooking in their DNA … Fr David learned to cook Yorkshire puddings with his granny and worked in a village pub as a teenager.
Fr Andrew’s Dad was a baker. He also had a grandmother who taught him young and his last parish even bought him some chef’s whites in recognition of his culinary endeavours!
Joining them are Fr Andrew’s wife Liz; St James’ churchwarden Kaye Ridings and some 14 volunteer drivers and three packers. Cooking takes place principally Monday to Wednesday but may also include other days responding to demand.
Since their cooking marathon began, more than 2000 meals have now been served in hot and frozen form by the St James’ and St Thomas’ team; around 150 a week.
The catering service being offered by the parishes is indicative of very many similar initiatives quietly taking place all over Lancashire at this time of pandemic, as churches seek to support people’s physical as well as spiritual needs. It is also very reflective of the aims of our Diocesan ‘Vision 2026 Healthy Churches Transforming Communities’ and the cooking is set to continue through the year as we ‘unlock’.
Fr David said: “All of our projects and activities begin with prayer, so I’d have to say that the inspiration comes from God.
“Our churches, like so many, have this great feeding tradition. We’re also blessed with a really willing band of volunteers who have a passion for the community, its people and their Christian calling. It turns out we had all the resources and it just needed a bit of a prompt to line them all up!
Fr Andrew added: “There was a history of catering and church meals already in the parishes and folk were obviously missing the social aspect of the church too. We were also conscious of the loneliness some were feeling and the need to support those who may be struggling and/or may be vulnerable in our community.
“The people who have responded weren’t necessarily those we were expecting. Vulnerability, like poverty, comes in many forms. We are called to be witnesses showing God's love in action through projects that meet a local human need while growing as disciples of Christ at the same time.
“Our food ministry is one way the Church can show that love in action and, in doing this work, we’re helping our church to have a really healthy, outward-looking focus.”
In that context Fr David and Fr Andrew both feel the pandemic has been a catalyst to get things moving in a fresh direction and the situation has made them think even more carefully about who lives and works in their parish.
As well as the weekly two-course lunch they have also been able to begin making frozen meals to distribute to anyone who might appreciate and/or need some extra support. They are very grateful to donors who have provided them with additional freezers to make this possible.
Fr Andrew added: “The meals have been delivered, in our thermal delivery bags, by our group of volunteer drivers. We’ve ensured Covid-safety throughout.
“People really appreciate both the food and the visit from our drivers - it is the highlight of their week for many.
He continued: “There is also a small administration team sticking labels on bags and checking each order before it goes out to the car park. The phrase ‘well-oiled machine’ springs to mind!”
Demonstrating the fact that the church is there for all, anyone who makes contact from around their parishes can be fed. To book a meal, hot or frozen, for yourself or someone else, they must be ordered by noon on the preceding Saturday each week. Book in with Fr Andrew on 07460 899451 and the service is also advertised on local social media sites.
Looking to the future, with thanks, Fr David concludes by saying: “I want to thank everyone involved in helping to coordinate this project and make it happen. I hope during the lockdown we have brought some love, comfort and joy out from the church into our community.
“Now this work has really taken off, we are looking forward to continuing throughout 2021 and beyond. Fellowship around food in ministry is extremely important – it’s a great place for conversation, debate, listening and learning. We also can’t wait to be able to offer meals again in our church buildings. Who knows, maybe we can share a meal in person before too long!”
Commenting on the work at St James’ and St Thomas’ Bishop Julian said: “I want to thank everyone in the parishes who has contributed to serving their communities in such a practical and helpful way.
“Since I came to Lancashire to become Bishop of Blackburn in 2013, I have witnessed and heard about countless selfless acts for the greater good of local communities in the County.
“People in our churches and schools quietly get on with the business of serving others in so many ways every day and, in so doing, they become faithful witnesses for Jesus Christ to so many.
“This cooking initiative is a great example of this active community service and I am heartened to hear how the food deliveries have been a weekly highlight for so many in lockdown. This really is our Vision 2026 in action - healthy churches transforming communities … in this particular case with hearty meals!
“It is also encouraging to hear about the plans to continue with the kitchen as we begin to unlock. I look forward to receiving an invitation to join a future ‘in person’ meal when it is possible to gather together properly again.”
Captions for the above pictures are as follows ...
Pictures by Clive Lawrence
Pic 1 Father David Stephenson, centre, and Father Andrew Holmes, second left, are joined by some of the volunteers L/R Andrew Smart, Kaye Ridings and Elizabeth Smart
Pic 2 Churchwarden and volunteer Kaye Ridings busy with the latest batch of meals
Pic 3 L/R Father Andrew Holmes and Father David Stephenson cook up more meals
Pic 4 Ready for delivery: L/R Volunteer Elizabeth Smart takes charge of some food parcels from Father Andrew Holmes, before delivering them in the local community