Donna Rincon once needed the help of Angels On A Mission, the food closet at Lighthouse Christian Fellowship. Little did she know that she’d find herself leading the food ministry before too long.
But that’s how God works, said John Jernigan, who founded 17-year-old Lighthouse Christian Fellowship to save souls and help the less fortunate.
“We were giving out sandwiches and other things before,” said Jernigan, who was once homeless. “But it was her idea to give them the blessing of a hot meal, something to look forward to. She really made that happen.”
“She’s an amazing cook,” added Al Taylor, head of Heaven’s Gate Ministry, a branch of Lighthouse Christian Fellowship that offers food, clothes and furniture to the needy.
Rincon, whose menu includes fried chicken, ribs, beef stew, homemade soups and other hot offerings, works out of a kitchen in converted house about three miles east of McGee’s Crossroads. The landowner allows Lighthouse to use the property at no charge. Two sheds near the house hold refrigerators, freezers and shelves of food.
Rincon, who joined the ministry about three years ago, prepares hot meals every Friday to give to needy residents of Johnston and surrounding counties. She and other volunteers also hand out boxes of food, anywhere from 30 to 45 every Friday. The ministry delivers meals to people who are confined to their homes, and it has a mobile food kitchen.
All the ministry expects of people receiving food is for them to listen to a 15-minute message, and it’s not always a religious message, Jernigan said. He sometimes talks about how to sign up for health insurance, or find a job or get an education.
“We’re here to feed their souls, then their bodies,” Jernigan said.
The clients, as the ministry calls them, are also expected to give back. Everyone who volunteers with the church or one of its ministries was a client at one point.
“It’s one big family,” Jernigan said. “We have a devotion to community development and spirit uplifting. It’s a hand up, not a handout, and you’re not just clients, you’re family.”
The food ministry gets rolling every Friday morning when Rincon and other volunteers start packing boxes of food donated by Food Lion, the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, Johnston farmers and other groups. By 11 a.m. or noon, people start to arrive.
They’re all ages, races and backgrounds. Children race around, getting underfoot, but everyone is smiling, hugging each other and making small talk. They’re cracking jokes with Jernigan or wandering into the kitchen to see Rincon’s latest culinary creation.
Jernigan calls it “the misfit church.” He’s had homeless people, drug addicts, alcoholics and those with criminal records walk through his doors. But they’re all family.
“Everyone is family; even if they start out as clients, they could end up as director,” Jernigan said, nodding toward Taylor and laughing. “We want you to move up the ranks and help.”
“And we need the help,” Rincon said.
While the food, clothing and furniture ministries count themselves as successful, they could use more room. Rincon said she has access to so much food she doesn’t have room to store it all.
“Sometimes we have to bring some of it to our homes so it doesn’t spoil and then bring it back to put it in the boxes,” she said.
Jernigan stores furniture at his house, and clothes are stuffed into a trailer people can dig through, but he said that’s not ideal.
The ministries could also use more volunteers — just a few hours a week to pack boxes or pick up donations.
On a recent Friday, Rincon pulled a few able-bodied young men from the parking lot full of client cars to help carry boxes of food for the less able. “But they were willing to help,” she said.
Though sometimes short on volunteers and always short on cash, The ministries rack up impressive numbers. Last year, the ministries prepared 62 Thanksgiving dinners, served 400 takeout meals from the Four Oaks Fire Department, hosted 200 children on Halloween, donated 100 backpacks to children and fed 200 homeless people in Fayetteville on Thanksgiving.
But the ministries want to do even more.
“There’s so much we have to say ‘no’ to because of lack of space and people,” Rincon said. “It’s not that the help isn’t available. We could get more food for more people. We could get more of everything.”
“We’re just not capable of housing it all right now,” Jernigan said, adding that he hoped someone would be willing to donate land or lease the church space for next to nothing.
“It’s not about filling churches or pockets,” Jernigan said. “It’s a ministry. … We want to feed and bless you, because it’s all about God, and we can’t do it without God.”