Getting up at two in the morning to head to work is never fun, of that I am certain. Yet, this morning in Bakersfield, California, could not have been more fun, more interesting or even more meaningful.
We flew in late from Georgia, and landed at about six thirty Pacific time, having first worked all morning on the East Coast. First to dinner, than to an early bed in order to rise and be at the host site parking lot by three to meet the two tractor trailers from National Carriers, Angel Food Ministries‘ official carrier for this month’s 560 thousand boxes of food relief we just distributed. What made this trip so important to us – Pastor Joe Wingo and the Ministry Development team – was that this host site in Bakersfield has risen from an obscure new entry in a state with yet a relatively low saturation for Angel Food, to the single largest host site distribution point in America. Bakersfield Compassion Christian Center and its Pastor, Martha Johnson, began with AFM in November 2008 with an impressive opener of 304 boxes to the even more impressive 2858 boxes we handed out today.
With almost seamless precision, the cold and dark parking lot of the Center transformed before us. From a cosmic empty space with just two giant rigs lit with small running lights illuminating the area like a far off runway in the blackened distance of a clear sky, idling gently in the chilly California wind, into a professionally run open-aired warehouse where every item has its place, ready for the vast undertaking about to commence.
A small group of volunteers began maneuvering a donated forklift, easily taking every palette off the rigs and placing them around the edges of the lot, marked by tables with tags identifying the food items designated for the space. Within 90 minutes, both trucks were empty; the dry goods first, followed by the refrigerated items on the second semi. Now we just had to wait. The night sky was still deep, the stars shone bright and my two daughters, accompanying me for this distribution visit, stared out in wonder at the terrific sky, convinced that this is something they don’t usually experience looking up above our New York City skyline. We waited a while, and then, much like at the end of Field of Dreams, as the headlights appeared to spiral down the path to the plowed cornfield, people started to come.
As the sun rose, and the California night ebbed, bowing to the hot sun Southern California is known and loved for, the parking lot started looking like a day at a bustling street festival. A staging area was set with speakers and a sound system playing light fare gospel, tent areas were set with seats to protect those who sought it from the sun. A line was formed in the most orderly fashion that eventually wrapped around the block, while the most patient people waited to start collecting their Angel Food. The Christian Center set this up in a way worthy of duplication. The registration table in the center met the recipients, signed them in and a band of high school football players, the team coach and other students wearing orange vests acted as runners, and used grocery shopping carts to help collect the morning catch for every one of the seemingly unwearied.
There was prayer, music, coffee, cake, muffins and later, barbecue. There was media, and there was cheer and camaraderie. There were church goers, non-believers, whites, blacks, Asians, Latinos, families, singles, seniors, young, straight and gay alike, and there was the spirit of America on that block, in the parking lot. It was a beautiful thing to see, as Angel Food Ministries stood over this blessed event as an organization that did not merely provide food relief, but as one that provided a reason to come out and spend a day volunteering and helping, talking among friends, playing and singing and eating. It hit me with great smile, as I read a biased news story out of York, Pennsylvania, these so called journalists don’t want to get it, but these people before me do. Angel Food Ministries is about community, family and building bridges. It about feeding people, but it is also about people helping people, and people wanting to help others and feel good about it. It is about America at its best.
Looking at the simplest form of the business model, Sam Walton, of Wal-Mart fame became a multi billionaire and was revered, and still remembered, as a shrewd businessman. People may fault him for presumed contributions to the erosion of domestic trade, wage and benefit abuse of low income and even migrant workers, but no one attacked the wealth he amassed doing it. Arguably, Wal-Marts are exactly what destroyed communities as they moved in and wiped out the small business, chased families into poverty, and drove others away from small town America seeking elusive city jobs.
Pastor Joe Wingo, on the other hand, built a model that performs the very opposite of that. It makes people want to work for people, it builds neighborhoods and solidifies neighbors as friends, it brings people to houses of worship to pick up their food with the hope that some dynamic pastors, preachers or rabbis can convince them to come in for a service. It grows communities, plants churches and develops enduring relationships in towns and cities across America. Yet, for that insight and hard work, he has been vilified in jealous circles for making a salary. Mind you, it pales in comparison to wages earned by big corporation CEOs, and even the salaries of some of the large national non profit organizations that do little more than beg for money, simply to redistribute a portion back to people and initiatives for which each is set to do. Still, Joe Wingo’s salary and CEO of a $140 million organization that feeds hundreds of thousands without seeking donations, develops community minded programs, returns millions into local communities, and gives people hope in an era where hope seems to fade, is a source for contention.
As Pastor Joe walked around and greeted the eager people, he was received as a celebrity. A woman broke down and cried to him, saying that she was seeking a way to give back, and Angel Food was the answer to her prayers. Children shook his hand, silver foxes hugged our charming CEO, and the California Senate Majority Leader prepared a special award and proclamation for Joe and Linda Wingo. Apparently they are doing something right, and as long as the people who rely on this food for their well being are pleased, perhaps the naysayers should not matter. Pastor Wingo spoke to ABC television about his vision and the need for food, and we were handed food for the plane ride home.
Little Pink Houses lined the streets around the church where we were this morning, and all I could think of was John Mellencamp’s song. Joe Wingo and Angel Food Ministries is the best of America, and helps ensure that the best in Americans come out with every order taken and every distribution made. Ain’t that America? We saw the America that I believe in, that we need to see more of and that my kids know they haven’t seen up close quite like this today.
Juda Engelmayer is President and Partner with the NY PR agency, HeraldPR