The words of that old gospel song surely rang in the ears of Van Dobbins Jr. when he got word Tuesday morning that the huge community food pantry he and others manage for Central Baptist Church had been gutted by fire.
When he arrived to fire engines, hoses and police cars on Carver Street, he says the damage was breathtaking, almost surreal.
“It hurt my heart,” Dobbins remembers. “The idea of just losing food itself is devastating enough. But when it is food for the needy, it’s a heartstopper.”
The Central Baptist Church food pantry is one of many neighborhood agencies that maintains storehouses of food to feed needy families in their communities.
A blaze that the Kingsport fire marshal believes began in a light fixture quickly spread through wall insulation and gutted the storage area. The fire was quickly put out, but damage to the building next to the church has been estimated at about $40,000. Other parts of the structure were hardly damaged at all. Kingsport Fire Department spokesman Barry Brickey says the heavy-duty construction of the building kept the fire from spreading.
But it’s the loss of what was inside the pantry storage area that hurts the most.
“We lost all of our supplies to feed the hungry,” Dobbins says. “About 3,000 cans of food, about 200 loaves of bread, 80 cakes and pies and many irreplaceable items, including our files of the food supply needs of our community. All gone.”
Dobbins says his faith did not waver. He says in a disaster, he truly believes the Lord will make a way. And in that moment, neighbors began helping neighbors.
The church distributes food boxes to the needy every Wednesday, so the arrival last Wednesday of a huge truck loaded with meats, canned goods and other necessities from Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee was met with open arms and thankful hearts. Second Harvest provides donated food to pantries around the area.
“We supply all of our agencies from a warehouse that used to be the old Sam’s Club in Kingsport,” says Second Harvest Executive Director Rhonda Chafin, “and when we heard about the fire, we knew they would need extra help. Of the three mobile food units we have, we sent the Mobile Produce Pantry because in addition to basic food, Central also distributes many healthy foods like fruit, vegetables and produce to families.
“The need was just too great to ignore.”
The appearance of the truck was welcome news to those who need the food it contained. Some of them had even called the church, worried that they would have no food to get them through the Christmas holiday and beyond.
“It helps so much when you’re trying to plan and stretch out what to eat during the holiday,” says Loretta Stout of Kingsport, standing in line waiting for the food distribution to begin. She has depended on the Central food pantry “oh, for years, honey,” she says. “None of us here in line would have anything to eat if it weren’t for the food pantry. The folks here at the church give us cheery smiles and encouragement and we always leave feeling special.”
“The food stamps we get don’t go very far,” says Amber Cowart, a pantry recipient caring for two children with special needs. “The people here at Central Baptist are very helpful if you tell them what your family has to have. When I heard about the fire, I was just praying that (the fire didn’t damage) the church itself. But I was just as hurt when I found out that it was the food pantry that was destroyed. We all depend on that just as much as we depend on the church.”
Chafin says in her 26 years she could not ever remember a fire wiping out a pantry’s entire stock.
“We’ve endured floods, tornadoes and sometimes downturns in donations, but this was the first fire-based disaster I’ve ever experienced that completely wiped out one single food pantry’s inventory.”
That’s why the Central pantry fire was as surprising as it was tragic. For more than 30 years, the community’s needy families have found a nutritious refuge at the church.
“It’s not just the food distribution every Wednesday,” Dobbins says. “Through separate programs, the food pantry also feeds about 200 families and seniors with a fixed income on a weekly basis. For the size of Central and its mission, it is the Lord’s guidance that helps us provide outreach ministries to the community. It’s just what we are supposed to do.”
Normally on a Wednesday, the pantry serves 60 to 80 families. Last Wednesday, 90 families came through the line, some of them Dobbins says, even offering to physically help the pantry get back on its feet.
“It really shows you that the giving spirit this Christmas can go both ways.”
Others in the community are stepping up to help out, too. The three Food City stores in Kingsport were so moved after hearing about the pantry fire, that their regular $10 purchases of bags of food for the needy will be donated to the Central Baptist food pantry through Christmas Eve. Eastman Road store manager Raymond Stockard says folks can purchase the bags at 1205 N. Eastman Road, 300 Clinchfield St. and 1911 Moreland Drive in Colonial Heights.
“The need for help is so great for now and beyond,” says Chafin. “It means so much for everybody to step up and help one of our larger distribution agencies get back on its feet after a devastating loss, especially here at Christmastime and going into the colder winter months.”
“We also hope that people will donate food to help Central replenish and stock their shelves back up. There is a genuine need here.”
Central is ready for those donations. Pastor Perry Stuckey says basic items most needed right now are canned goods; small bottles of water; diapers and baby wipes; paper plates and paper towels; and plastic utensils.
Meanwhile, Chafin says the Second Harvest Mobile Produce Pantry will be at the church every Wednesday, helping volunteers distribute those items and more as the pantry is rebuilt.
“We are here for the long haul,” she says. “The people depend on the food. We already have a place designated for Central Baptist in our warehouse to store donations to their food pantry to continue this necessary program.”
Pastor Stuckey says the church has also secured other storage space.
From the ashes of a devastating fire, comes a mission of survival.
“As a church, we’ll have to decide whether to rebuild at the same location or at another site,” Dobbins says. “We feel that this outreach is doing the Lord’s work. We are doing what He wants us to do, and if we can learn from this tragedy and do it better the next time, it is to His glory.
“When Christ fed the multitudes with just two fishes and five loaves of bread, He set the example for the rest of us.”
For Central Baptist Church’s food pantry, that example comes in the song that says it all.
“There’s a sweet relief in knowing ... the Lord will make a way somehow.”