God's grocery store
$15 goes far at Bread of Life Ministry

LAWRENCEVILLE - Bill Barker, a pastor, stands in a semicircle of shivering people who've waited in the cold for an hour. He closes his eyes and points heavenward. On his head is a leathery wrangler's hat; in his hand, a Bible.

"I know a lot of times we feel unloved, forgotten about," Barker calls indiscriminately to the crowd. Even those who don't speak English are nodding. "You know God loves you - you know that."

The crowd is gathered at the base of an old country church, atop a steep hill. Behind them a pasture, yellowed by autumn, unfurls to a distant subdivision. It feels like a tucked-away sanctuary, a rural retreat not far from Sweetgum Road.

This is the Bread of Life Ministry. It isn't your typical food pantry.

The crowd - an ethnic rainbow of families, single dads, struggling young mothers - has each taken a number. They wait patiently for a go-through in the church's basement - a cramped but bountiful space that's been described as God's Grocery Store.

For a $15 donation, patrons can load shopping carts with a cornucopia of vegetables, produce, pizzas and New York-style cheesecakes. Racks of bread and bagels against one wall could rival the high-yeast section of any Wal-Mart. Shoppers pick as they please. In here, it's the antithesis of prepackaged boxes with canned and dry goods.

"For $15, it's worth it," said first-time shopper Mary Stewart, a mother of three from Snellville. "You don't get everything you'd like, but it helps."

Today, 35 families have signed up to wind through the Bread of Life space. They quickly bag and box the food, most of it donated from big-box grocers in the area. The pantry is open four days a week for an hour.

Much goes on in those hours.

"I've always said this place is a reflection of the economy," volunteer Bob Katke said. "The worse it is, the more families you have."

In operation since 1994, the Bread of Life pantry is orchestrated by leaders of the New Life Fellowship Church. It has served up to 250 families at once. It goes all year. It doesn't discriminate by age, income or ZIP Code. It just serves.

"We see ourselves as a ministry for the working poor," said Sukie Barker, who co-founded the church with her husband, the pastor. "They make a little too much money to get food stamps. These people slip through the cracks with (the Division of Family and Children Services)."

With a modest $100,000 budget, the church pulls off a lot of good, especially during the holidays.

The food pantry compliments the church's other local charity, Threads of Life, a thrift store that made headlines when it was burglarized in early November. Despite the break-in, leaders still hope to serve 1,500 area kids with a toy drive at the thrift store this year.

A frugal philanthropy

In the early 1980s, the Barkers were living lavishly in Central Florida. Bill Barker pulled a high salary as a pharmaceutical sales rep, while his wife stayed home to school their children. They recall dining frequently on crab leg feasts at Daytona Beach.

But for the Barkers, financial comfort didn't equate to spiritual fortitude. Bill Barker entered a Texas seminary, kick-started overseas missions and, through contacts, landed in Gwinnett County, where residents were receptive to their giving spirit.

The family left materialism behind them. To illustrate that, they point to their two current vehicles - aging models that have racked up a collective 530,000 miles.

"We wouldn't go back to it because we know this is what God called us to do," Sukie Barker said. "That gives you more peace than money in the bank."

And the giving spirit appears to be infectious.

A few months ago, Victoria Moses was trying to make ends meet, working in a hobbling mortgage industry, she said. One day she overstepped her pride and came to the Bread of Life to relieve her grocery budget.

Now Moses volunteers about 40 hours per week, jokingly calling herself an "inventory control specialist."

"From someone who's definitely had to be on the other side, it makes you feel good about yourself," Moses said.

His sermon finished, Bill Barker steps aside and opens the line for shopping carts. Politely, the shoppers file in. He cracks a knowing grin.

"We try to give them more than food," he said. "We try to give them hope."

New Life Fellowship Church can be reached at 770-513-1007.