Despite challenges, church feeds many hungry people

LAWRENCEVILLE - Bill Barker is the pastor of New Life Fellowship, a little non-denominational church that sits on a hill on Martin's Chapel Road. From the street it might not look like much, but great things happen inside those walls.

Aside from being a place where 20 or 30 people gather to worship on Sundays, the church's basement is home to the Bread of Life food ministry, which helps feed hundreds each week.

So far in 2008, the ministry has given out about $4 million worth of food, Barker said. Not bad for a church that operates on an annual budget of about $100,000, all of which goes toward other expenses such as salaries, insurance on vehicles used to transport food and other operating costs.

"I've put $17,000 worth of fuel in the trucks," Barker said.

All groceries are donated from local grocery stores, restaurants and other charitable organizations. Whether it's a Pizza Hut pizza someone ordered but never picked up or a loaf of bread whose sell-by date is approaching, the basement that floods when it rains almost always overflows with groceries to be given away.

Four days a week, Barker and his volunteers open the doors to lines of people who need help. He does request a $15 donation to shop there, but each person, on average, will receive nearly $250 worth of groceries. Sometimes folks may be so down on their luck that they don't have $15 to give. If that's the case, they still walk away with a box full of groceries.

"No one is turned away without food," said Barker's wife, Sukie.

"It's open to anyone who is hungry," added volunteer Curtis Dalton.

For a $15 donation, patrons are given a shopping cart and allowed to peruse the makeshift grocery store that offers fresh vegetables, all sorts of bread, frozen foods, snacks and sodas. The 16 refrigerators and freezers and man-made shelves store just about anything you would find in your local grocery store.

Barker hopes one day to add walk-in coolers and freezers to help things run more efficiently, but in a world where there is oftentimes a greater demand than supply, he is not complaining.

"God has always blessed us with enough stuff to take care of people," he said.

When food is left over, as is often the case, the same donated trucks that brought it to New Life are used to take it to another ministry in Tennessee. If fresh produce is going bad, it is given to farmers to feed their livestock.

"That's a great thing; nothing is wasted," Barker said. "The way I grew up, you don't throw anything away."

Barker, 62, holds a chemistry degree from the University of Georgia and worked for a while in pharmaceutical sales. It was a good job, he said. Good pay, great benefits. But in the mid-1980s he was called to the ministry. He graduated from seminary in 1987, he said, and became pastor of New Life Fellowship in 1990. In 1993, he prayed about what he and the church could do to reach out in the community. That's when he handed out little cloud-shaped pieces of paper to church members and asked them to write one project they would like to be involved with.

"It came back almost unanimously to feed people who were hungry," Barker said.

Soon after, Barker got a phone call from the Quinn House asking if he wanted to give out bread for them, he said, and so started the food ministry.

The church also holds Christmas toy drives for children of all ages, and handed out gifts to more than 1,000 children last Christmas.

The building, which Barker believes was built around 1900, is being threatened by time and elements. Several leaks have caused severe structure damage.

The basement floods, the floors and walls have rotted in spots. The patchwork repair jobs done over the years are coming unraveled. But through blessings, Barker believes, even those issues are being taken care of.

Jeremy Bryan, a member of 12Stone Church, owns a painting business. Through a church program, he and other 12Stone members have agreed to do as much of the repair work as they can. What they can't do, Bryan hopes to pass along to contacts who can. Free of charge to New Life.

Just another in the long line of blessings, Barker said, for the small church with a big heart.

"Our church might be little, but God uses us in big ways," Barker said.