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Woman with ‘uncommon touch’ ministers to homeless

Children are served breakfast at Mount Zion United Methodist
Church in Clearwater, Fla. UMNS photos by Caryl Kelley.

By Jenna De Marco*
July 27, 2009 | CLEARWATER, Fla. (UMNS)

Ten years ago, Betty Perry was fixing breakfast for Sunday school workers when a hungry man approached her and asked if he could have something to eat.

The following Sunday, six people came to the kitchen at Mount Zion United Methodist Church looking for something to eat.

Betty Perry started the meals ministry 10 years ago to serve the area’s homeless population.

Now, she serves some 200 of the poor and homeless Sunday breakfast each week through the “Uncommon Touch Ministry” at her church.

Betty Perry does not turn away those in need. “Whatever we can do for these people, we do,” she said.

Her efforts generated local and national attention recently when Perry won a 2009 Jefferson Award for public service. Perry is one of 75 winners from local communities who traveled to Washington in June to be honored.

“Betty wins the Jefferson Award because of her program at the church,” said Sam Beard, one of the founders of the Jefferson Awards. “It’s just an example of what goes right back to the founding of the country, which is that volunteer spirit.”

For her part, Perry finds a number of rewards serving others.

“It’s an awesome ministry, and I love doing it,” she said.

More than a meal

The Sunday diners come to breakfast from surrounding communities, including Dunedin, Largo, St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park, Perry said.

“They are traveling far because what they say to us is, we’re the only people who treat them like human beings,” Perry said. “We know their names. Even if it is new people, we know their names before they leave.”

When the crowds arrive for breakfast, they find more than a meal. They can visit the “clothes closet,” a collection of donated clothing, personal hygiene and baby care items. Prior to dining, the group joins in a pre-meal devotion.

Each Sunday, hundreds of
hungry residents are
served breakfast.

“The prayer is done by them,” Perry said. “They can sign up, or they can just volunteer when they get in.”

The Rev. Lawrence Barriner, church pastor, often joins the participants at the table for conversation.

“We sit down and we talk to them and we need to deal with where they are and we need to let them know that there’s someone who cares and that God cares,” Perry said.

That includes providing a dining experience with tablecloths and flowers on each table to go along with the hot breakfast of eggs, sausage, grits, biscuits, corned beef hash, juice, milk and coffee.

The food is prepared from scratch each week, mostly by Perry, who begins her preparations on Tuesday. Sundays are reserved for heating and serving the food.

Each week, diners consume about a case of bananas, 15 dozen eggs, nine pounds of sausage, six or more gallons of milk, four gallons of orange juice, four gallons of apple juice, enough coffee for 150 people, two gallons of cranberry juice, 10 pounds of grits and 250 to 300 biscuits. She also stocks some non-perishable snacks and drinks at the church for families with hungry children.

The ministry costs an average of $1,400 per month. Perry sometimes has paid all the expenses, but food and monetary donations come in more often now.

“I do a lot of praying, and all I worry about now is, ‘Are my bills paid?’” she said. “And I still pay my tithes and offerings, and people just come to me with donations.”

Support from church members and outside volunteers makes the feeding ministries possible, Perry said.

Barriner said the impact of Perry’s ministry is impressive, especially in the context of a church with a “lean budget” and fewer than 200 members. He emphasized the ministry’s biblical underpinnings.

“I think it is important because Christ has called us to be in solidarity with the poor,” he said. “And that’s a biblical mandate to be in solidarity with them.”

Struggling families seek assistance

The national economic recession makes the ministry more relevant, Perry said. Some of those helped have children, while others may have run short on their public food assistance resources. Some are day laborers whose employment is inconsistent, and others have reached the end of the month with no money left for food.

“You would be amazed at the people we have now that used to have jobs that don’t have jobs now,” Perry said.

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Perry tries to help the families with children by providing extra milk and juice. She also makes hot dogs, frozen dinners, canned goods and cereal available when possible.

“It is very heartbreaking to see sometimes,” Perry said. “I can be just about in tears, especially when I see the kids.”

The majority of the children at breakfast end up attending Sunday school, too, Perry said.

“We have grown because some of the kids stay for Sunday school and some of the people who come for breakfast stay for Sunday school and worship,” she said.

Individuals interested in making a contribution may write a check payable to Mount Zion United Methodist Church, with “Uncommon Touch” in the memo line. The church address is 825 Howard Street, Clearwater, FL 33756.

*De Marco is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: David Briggs, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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