Two hours before the pastor prayed over the boxes of food and volunteers started handing out loaves of bread, cartons of eggs and bags of fruit, cars filled the parking lot of the Tanner church. By the time the last recipients navigated the line, JePau Outreach Ministries had distributed food to more than 200 people.
“We can’t wait to get here on Saturday morning and see who is coming. It is like Christmas,” said Paula Johnson, co-founder of JePau Outreach Ministries. “It brings tears to our eyes when we see all the cars and all the people. It doesn’t matter what color they are, if they smell good or what they look like, we treat them with love.”
Founded five years ago by husband and wife Jerry and Paula Johnson, the faith-based organization, which includes weekly food and clothing distribution, is filling a need in north Alabama — a need that continues to grow.
“This is a tough time. A lot of people are on fixed incomes. A lot of people are hurting. We are seeing new people every week. Some are homeless. Some are single parents. Some are living on Social Security,” said Jerry Johnson, bishop of Solomon Temple Church. “The word is out that the food is here. But the love is here, too. I think that’s why they keep coming back, because they feel loved.”
Every Saturday, from 9 to 11 a.m., the Johnsons, along with a team of volunteers, distribute food and clothing to individuals in need. Organizers enforce no limits on the number of items people can take nor the number of times they can receive assistance.
“As long as we have food, people can come. They can come every single week. There are no questions asked. We know what it’s like to be turned away,” Jerry Johnson said. “We don’t just do this ministry. We understand this ministry.”
That understanding and the desire to prevent others from experiencing hunger led the Johnsons to form JePau Outreach Ministries.
“God laid this on our hearts years ago. Growing up, I ate food given to us from the doctors and lawyers my mother worked for. And when my wife and I started out, there were a lot of things we didn’t have. We even tried to apply for food stamps because we were making no money, but were denied. We know what it feels like to go hungry,” Jerry Johnson said.
When the ministry started, the boxes contained two to three items. But, as Jerry Johnson said, citing Zechariah 4:10, “Don’t despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin.”
Now, along with the boxes, which include cereal, oatmeal, peanut butter, jelly, crackers, fruit cocktail, applesauce, a sausage and biscuit, canned goods, rice, beans, noodles and yogurt, the ministry provides eggs, fresh fruit and vegetables, desserts, loaves of bread and milk.
“Our goal on Saturdays is to show God’s love. We aren’t trying to preach to anybody or push anything on them. When people are hurting, sometimes they need a meal, not a sermon,” Jerry Johnson said.
Charlie McDaniel, who started receiving food from the ministry two years ago, responded to that mindset.
“I feel loved here,” the 57-year-old Limestone County man said. “I don’t know much about the Bible, I’ve only been a Christian for a couple of years, but I’m trying to do what is right. I’m trying to love others like they’ve loved on me.”
Last Saturday, before volunteers handed out the first box of food, Jerry Johnson baptized McDaniel.
“When I came up out of the water, I felt clean, like I done what I was supposed to do,” said McDaniel, who has nine stents in his heart and recently suffered a stroke. “The doctor gave me three months to live. They say my heart isn’t strong. I don’t want to die and not go to heaven. I feel at peace now.”
For Carrie Hardaway, the outreach ministry’s impact goes beyond the nutritional benefit provided by the food.
“This is the best part of my week. This is the best thing that has happened to me,” Hardaway said. “I used to be homeless. If it wasn’t for these people, I probably wouldn’t be there. It makes my heart feel so good when I come here.”
To meet the growing need, the Johnsons rely on vendors, local farmers, who donate vegetables and fruit, the Manna House in Huntsville and individual donors.
“We don’t want to see people come and not have anything. We do run out sometimes because the need is so great. That brings us to tears. When our shelves start to get low, we will pull from our own pockets, as do our volunteers, to make sure people are being fed,” Paula Jones said.
The Johnsons urged people not to judge those who receive assistance.
“You don’t know what someone is going through. People think, ‘Well, they ought to be working, like I’m working,’ ” Jerry Johnson said. “My mom worked in the fields chopping cotton. She is 85 now and draws $600 a month. There are a lot of people like her out there. It is our mission to take care of each other.”
Along with food and clothing, JePau Outreach Ministries provides individuals with counseling and money for gas. To find out how to assist the ministry, located at 2041 U.S. 31 South, contact Jerry Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Our prayer for the ministry is for it to increase. We do not want to turn anyone away. It is our mission to take care of each other,” Jerry Johnson said.