In the Catholic tradition, agape is the highest form of love. It is a selfless and unconditional love, one that seeks to share or sacrifice for the benefit of another.
That self-sacrificing love is in action every day at AGAPE: Love From Above to Our Community, an all-encompassing ministry in Bloomsburg that puts into action the care of our brothers and sisters illustrated in Matthew 25 as it feeds, clothes, shelters and otherwise assists those in need in Columbia and Montour counties.
Recently expanding from a 16,000-square foot facility where the ministry was bursting at the seams, AGAPE relocated to a 100,000-square foot warehouse six months ago. Already, its new home base is filling up with non-perishable foods, new and like-new clothing, home furnishings and appliances, and pet food and supplies.
Through the efforts of employees and volunteers dedicated to its mission, individuals and families can find immediate assistance for food, clothing and shelter, as well as long-term help from referrals, support groups and education.
“Our focus is the passage from Matthew 25, and it practically covers everything that we do here,” said Eileen Chapman, AGAPE’s Executive Director. “We have a saying that we fill in the gaps so no one falls through the cracks.”
AGAPE began its ministry 15 years ago as a hub expansion of Mission Central, the mission warehouse of the Susquehanna Conference of the United Methodist Church. AGAPE’s initial services focused on the distribution of used furniture and linens, and offering informational assistance and referral services.
Today, AGAPE remains a non-denominational ministry, providing an astounding array of services as it partners with organizations and volunteers to address immediate and long-term needs and to help families establish self-sufficiency and independence. Among their services:
- Daily Bread, which is dedicated to reducing hunger. The program encompasses the Columbia County Food Pantry for monthly food distribution; the Fresh Express weekly drive-through to supplement families’ meals; and a backpack program that supplies meals to students from seven area schools.
- Family Care, which includes a cloth-diaper program; the distribution of feminine hygiene products; supplemental supplies of pet food and products; and support and education for at-risk children, critically-ill patients and their families, and people recently-released from correctional facilities.
- Home Furnishings, a ministry that provides new and used items such as mattresses, bedding, couches, chairs, refrigerators, dishware, washers and dryers, and other household items.
- Financial Assistance, which includes a comprehensive number of programs to help clients pay bills and obtain shelter, food and counseling services.
According to AGAPE’s latest figures, it distributes more than 97,900 pounds of food and over $11,000 in financial assistance each month.
“It’s been a great Christian learning experience, and we’re just hoping that we’re following the purpose for each of our lives in serving God,” Chapman said of their work.
A Matthew 25 Grant Recipient
AGAPE: Love From Above to Our Community is one of 32 ministries within the Diocese to benefit from last year’s Matthew 25 Collection. The annual Diocesan collection provides grants to parish-sponsored programs that assist people in need with food, clothing and shelter.
This year’s collection is the weekend of November 20. Monies contributed by parishioners are directed into grants for area ministries. All funds given to the Matthew 25 Collection benefit local needs: Seventy-five percent of the monies are distributed to programs within the Diocese, and 25 percent is returned to parishes for their use in assisting others.
AGAPE’s grant from last year’s collection supports its To-Go Food Backpacks for Kids program, which helps feed students in seven schools in Columbia County.
The backpack program provides students with a bag containing items from each of the five main food groups. Encompassing students who qualify for free or reduced lunch, the program serves 1,657 children each month.
Assembled each week, the bags are filled with items such as macaroni and cheese, ravioli, SpaghettiOs and soup; cereal and Pop-Tarts; fruits and vegetables; and a drink. Bags are packed at AGAPE or at the schools. AGAPE also supplies high schools with mini-pantries so older students can discreetly obtain the food they need.
“The end result is an amazing experience. When you give a child a bag of food, there is a sense of relief on their face. It’s unspoken, but it’s there,” said Laurie Swank, AGAPE’s Director of Programs and Human Resources.
“When I heard we received the Matthew 25 grant, I was so incredibly grateful,” she said. “We’re challenged right now by economic conditions, lack of donations, the price of food. If we were not given this wonderful grant, we would continue on because that’s what we do. But the effects might be in the quantity of the food we have available, or maybe something that is a little less expensive, thereby giving up some of the quality that we like to make sure our children are getting.”
The schools are incredibly appreciative of the backpack program, AGAPE administrators said. Students who aren’t hungry have a greater ability to concentrate and generally perform well in school.
“They have the ability to focus, the ability to sit down with the knowledge that their belly is full and they don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from. There is something to be said for the child that can just relax and go into the tasks at hand, unimpeded,” Swank said.
Karen Heaps, Director of Case Management at AGAPE, has seen first-hand the benefits of the backpack program. She is raising her grandson, who looks forward the distribution of the bags that he and some of his classmates receive at Head Start.
“He is benefiting from it because other kids in his class benefit from it. He is just thrilled to death when he gets his bag with his name on it, and sees what food is in it,” Heaps said. “It really does make a difference in their life. You don’t know the background of all of these children and what needs are there. I am so grateful that we can continue the program, because it makes a huge difference.”
Chapman, Swank and Heaps expressed their deep appreciation for the Matthew 25 Collection, and their gratitude for those who contribute in order to assist the people in their communities.
“A lot of times when you’re giving, you don’t get to see the end result of your gift. But you can see with this program, you have reached someone, you have put something in a child’s belly,” Swank said. “People are making these programs work, so don’t think your gift is falling unappreciated.”
“When I think about Matthew 25 and AGAPE, I believe AGAPE is the essence of that passage,” she said. “Whether it’s food, clothing, clean clothes, financial assistance – all the things that Agape brings forth is because there is a need.”
Learn more about the Matthew 25 Collection and how you can contribute at www.hbgdiocese.org/matthew25.
(Photos by Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness