Making a Difference, One Meal at a Time

Published on: December 1, 2012

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In Discover the Power Within You, Eric Butterworth relates an anecdote I have always loved: “A little child was tearfully objecting to being put to bed in a dark room. The mother attempted to soothe her with the reminder that she was never alone, that God was always with her wherever she was. The little child cried, ‘But I want someone with skin on.’ ” The truth in this story is that when the chips are down we want God, and we also want “someone with skin on”—which happens to be God, too!

Three years ago my family had our own need for “someone with skin on.” My husband’s brother, who had lived with our family for four years, had died suddenly of a heart attack. Within hours our house was filled to bursting with grieving family members and friends, and remained so for the five days between his transition and the memorial service. We were not prepared to feed everyone.

In days of old—or even now in other, perhaps more rural communities—our neighbors or our congregation would have sprung into action with what I like to call “the casserole brigade.” People would have dropped by the house with casseroles and pasta dishes, with cakes and pies, and all would have been fed. It would have happened organically, without fuss or fanfare. In our case, one friend from church came to the house bearing lasagna and salad, and we were grateful. Beyond that, we got by on a lot of takeout.

It didn’t occur to me to ask for help at the time, but later I began to wonder why my husband and I, both very active members of our Unity congregation, didn’t receive support in the form of food and visits. I am humbled to say that I had never thought about delivering meals to others until our family experienced the need, and perhaps this is part of the answer. But I think there may be more.

Could it be that because we place such a premium on privacy and independence—at least in the Unity communities I have experienced—we may hesitate to offer material assistance if we notice one of our neighbors is going through a difficult time? And are we ourselves reluctant to ask for help for fear of being seen as needy? Or is urban and suburban life a factor? Where we live in the Washington, DC metro area, extended commutes, long hours on the job, and minimal involvement with our neighbors are the norm. And hardly anyone cooks!

Helping Hands Is Born

A few months after my brother-in-law died, I approached our ministers to discuss my family’s experience and to see if we could find a way to provide practical assistance to members of the congregation who found themselves in need. We called our new ministry Helping Hands.

Here’s how Helping Hands works: We advertise the services the ministry provides (meals, errands, transportation, yard work or odd jobs, and friendly visits) on the Unity of Fairfax, Va., website (, in the Sunday bulletin, on fliers in our atrium, and by word of mouth. When someone in the congregation has a need, he or she can call the ministry leader, Connie Sorrentino, or the pastoral care minister, Rev Jane St. John, to specify which services are requested. Alternatively, if a minister or staff member learns of an illness or death in the family, she can ask Connie to call the family to see if they might need anything. Once Connie has the information, an email goes out to the team to see who might be able to help.

There are 30 active members on the Unity of Fairfax Helping Hands team. Since its inception in June 2011, the team has provided meals, rides to medical appointments and to church, hospital and home visits, and errands. Connie says, “It’s a wonderful program for both the recipients and the volunteers. Several people who were helped have told me how much it meant to them to have meals delivered for several weeks, and they feel good knowing that Helping Hands is there for them when they need it. And the volunteers get to connect at the heart level with someone else and know that their help is appreciated.”
If you would like to start a ministry like Helping Hands in your community but are not sure where to begin, there are resources available (see below). And remember, each time you are “someone with skin on” for a person in need, you are doing God’s work in the world. And it is good.


Resources for Care Teams

If you would like to start a Care Team at your spiritual community, Unity of Fairfax is happy to share our experience. You may contact Connie Sorrentino, the Helping Hands leader, at [email protected] or 703.528.2551. Rev Jane St. John, pastoral care minister, can be reached at 703.281.1767, ext. 114.

The Support Team Network, a program of the UAB Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama, has a helpful series of instructional videos and printed materials offered free of charge, including a manual on how to start a team.

Here are several websites useful for coordinating meals and other services:
• (meals only)
• (meals only)
• (for a full range of services)


Lisa Colburn
Lisa Colburn is a writer, writing workshop leader, and former editor of the Alban Institute’s Congregations magazine. She is an active member of Unity of Fairfax in Oakton, Va.

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