More than 100 houses of worship are located in Evanston, Illinois, the first suburb north of Chicago along Lake Michigan. Worship services at many of these congregations, including Hillside Free Methodist Church, typically attract between 50 and 100 people.
According to Associate Pastor Maiya Lueptow, Hillside leaders and members began evaluating programs and asking tough questions several years ago: “What are the purposes of the church? What do we consider success? If Hillside Church ceased to exist would anybody in the neighborhood or the community notice or care?”
While giving the closing message at the Free Methodist Urban Fellowship’s spring Continental Urban Exchange, Lueptow recalled that the last question was met with a troubling answer: “We weren’t sure anyone who wasn’t already attending Hillside Church would notice or care if we closed our doors.”
Hillside decided to focus its resources on its fledgling food pantry program.
“We wanted to show the love of God in a meaningful way to people outside our church,” said Lueptow, a former public aid lawyer, who knew that many area residents had financial trouble but didn’t meet area pantries’ geographic or income restrictions. “We decided to give to anyone in need regardless of where they lived or how much they earned.”
Hillside members chose not to ask the invasive questions that some food pantries ask. If someone took food without being in need, the person would have to answer to God.
“Honestly, how many people are going to come to a food pantry if they don’t have to?” Lueptow said. “What would we be losing if these people were gaming us? Just a bag of food, most of which would be thrown in a dumpster anyway.”
The Hillside Food Pantry specializes in food rescue.
“It’s donated from local stores. It’s given by in-season farmers’ market vendors. They’d rather give it to us than cart back home what they don’t sell,” she said.
The pantry began after a Hillside member moved to another part of the Chicago area and became involved with a church’s food pantry program. In early 2007, she asked if Hillside members would come to a grocery store and pick up excess food to share with a refugee family from Myanmar. Church Administrator Faith Albano and her husband, Mike Albano, were told they could distribute the remaining food to other families in need. They began distributing food from their home to 15 families but still had food left, so they shared food with area ministries.
“We started just feeding people every Saturday,” Faith Albano said. “It began to be a little too much for the house. My living room, hallway and kitchen were loaded with food.”
The pantry moved to — and then outgrew — the church parsonage basement as other area grocery stores began sharing their excess food.
The pantry now operates from a separate building bordering the church parking lot. It is open from 4 to 6 p.m. Wednesdays and 2 to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Each time it opens, more than 90 volunteers serve more than 1,500 people, according to the pantry’s website (hillsidepantry.org).
Local and national news media have covered the pantry’s efforts and rapid growth. Award-winning filmmaker Susan Hope Engel has produced a short documentary about the pantry, which can be viewed online at fmchr.ch/hillsidefp.
Faith Albano was honored at Northwestern University as one of Evanston’s top volunteers because of her service to the community through the pantry. The Women’s Club of Evanston also made the pantry the recipient of a benefit.
As its fame has spread, the pantry hasn’t hidden the faith that drives its action. Its website states, “Distributing food is a means of showing the love of Jesus. … Treating patrons, volunteers and ministry leaders with respect and courtesy is also a means of showing Jesus’ love. When we work together to reach out to others, it brings glory to God and blessings to all involved.”
The pantry has never run out of food despite its growth. God continues to provide as demand increases.
“The pantry has brought more visibility to the church than anything else in the 20 years I’ve been there,” Lueptow said. “Now if Hillside Church disappeared, thousands of people would miss us. We are known throughout the community, and our ministry reach is wider than ever before.”