By Flocy So Hiong Crandall with Sue Schramm
“Putting God first in study and action, serving the community in action and love, working and serving the church as a body of Christ” is the mission of the Merced Bethel church. To carry out this goal, the church’s slogan is “Reflecting Christ in the community.”
The Merced Bethel church, located in the Central Valley of California, has a membership of 120, with regular Sabbath attendance at approximately 40 to 50 people. Having been the recipient of back-to-back clean audits in 2017 and 2018, and having very generous members, the church could give the impression that it is comfortable financially. However, it resides in an extremely impoverished area.
As the members believe strongly in God’s mission of reaching and loving others, leadership encourages them to use their strength and hands to reach out to those who have been written off as unreachable.
For 18 and a half years, members have offered a breakfast ministry to the homeless every Sunday morning, regardless of the weather. Bea and Jerry Lewis, Matt Johnson, and Cleofas Briones, with the help of many volunteers, have faithfully prepared and served more than 133,500 meals. Additionally, Briones has begun serving burritos on the last Sunday of every month at Steven Leonard Park as an extension of the city’s homeless program.
Before this ministry began, Bea Lewis happened to be standing in front of the church one chilly winter morning in 2000, when a homeless man approached her to ask for socks. She didn’t have any, so the man headed toward the National Guard Armory, where homeless persons are accommodated from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. during the winter season. This incident tugged at her heart. She asked herself, “How can I be standing in front of the church doing nothing when I could do something for these homeless?” So she decided to buy coffee and chocolate, which she and Tammie Owens served the next morning. Because the volunteers at the National Guard Armory go to church on Sundays, the homeless were not receiving help then, so Bea and Tammie began serving sandwiches, coffee, and chocolate on Sundays, and the breakfast program was launched.
At first, the homeless were hesitant to come and participate in the Sunday breakfasts. However, those that did come took food back with them for those who remained at the armory, and more were served.
Bea and Jerry Lewis then assumed leadership of the homeless ministry by preparing menus and buying needed items for Sunday’s breakfasts. God touched the hearts of many people, and others became involved. Agencies donated equipment, and others donated supplies and materials to the program. As the program expanded, the homeless received gift bags of items for the cold winters at Christmastime.
Then in 2008, spiritual food was added to the “menu” with Bible studies, which are ongoing. An estimated 4,000 people have attended these Bible studies over 11 years. Elder Charlie Crandall provides studies from 7 to 8 a.m. prior to the Sunday breakfasts. A highlight of the studies has been a complete and detailed lesson on the book of Revelation. In 2018, Elder Chris Poulin joined the Bible study group as an alternate teacher.
The breakfast ministry has brought change to the lives of the nearby homeless. Many of them are no longer homeless, yet they still come to the Bible study. Some have been baptized, and others are now attending Sabbath services.
One may ask, “What makes this program unique from other feeding programs?” There are several factors. People are spiritually and physically fed. The church believes the Word of God helps changes lives for the best. In addition, Sunday’s Bible study group manifests attitudes of reverence and respect to all.
Working with other local agencies, another Merced ministry that is making a difference is Community Services, which has helped more than 12,000 people in the past 10 years. Providing for the poor and needy, the ministry gives 5 to 10 weekly baskets, depending on the size and needs of the families. This ministry also provides turkey and food baskets to families during the Thanksgiving season.
Still another ministry of the church is the GLOW Festival at the end of each October. Children and families of the community have come for the past four years to attend this festival. The afternoon festival has become a treat for those seeking prayers, counseling, religious materials, games, toys, and, of course, free food. The Little Hands for Jesus Ministry provides for this undertaking with the help of many volunteers, including those from the nearby University of California Merced, several local high schools, and other agencies.
During the first year of the GLOW Festival, attendance ranged from 75 to 100, mostly children. The festival in 2018 brought more than 550 individuals. One of the most popular games is the traditional cakewalk. Attendees bring home joy, gifts, books, literature, memories, and the feeling that they are loved.
Looking forward to this year’s GLOW Festival, families around the church’s vicinity are expecting invitations from a working church that welcomes them no matter their situation.
More is to be expected from the Merced Bethel church, a small church with a big mission.