Can tomatoes, turnips, and cucumbers preach the gospel?
Definitely, according to Michele Montemurno, executive director of Bushels of Blessings (BoB), a gleaning and feeding ministry operating from First Assembly of God in Carneys Point, New Jersey.
“We serve the silent hungry who exist in every community,” says Montemurno, 67. “This is especially true today because of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many have lost jobs for the first time and will not talk about it. It’s very humbling.”
Above all, BoB’s donated food builds bridges to Christ through offered prayers, donated Bibles, invitations to worship services, and personal evangelism.
Montemurno’s day begins at dawn as she texts farmers for gleaning instructions during the May to September growing season in southern New Jersey’s tri-country (Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem) farm belt along the Delaware River.
Arriving at First Assembly around 9 a.m., she greets and leads volunteers, who drive vans, pickups with trailers, and refrigerated trucks to collect leftover farm produce. On a four-day weekly schedule, the crew visits five to seven family farms ranging in size from 300 to 5,000 acres.
Volunteer teams deliver their loads to the church’s air-conditioned fellowship hall for sorting and crating. The church serves as a storehouse where faith-based groups and mainstream community organizations collect the vegetables for final distribution to churches, the homeless, families, senior centers, and Adult & Teen Challenge in Philadelphia.
Montemurno launched BoB in 2012 during a stressful time. The shock of losing her executive position with a national furniture company the previous year provoked a spiritual dilemma. She questioned whether her self-worth rested in her vocation or her faith.
“The Lord answered, and led me patiently,” Montemurno says.
While praying for direction and pondering verses in Leviticus (19:9-10 and 23:22), she realized the law of gleaning for the poor and the alien could be applied today. Encouraged by Keith A. Holt, her pastor at First Assembly, and Clarence Johnson, retired president of the Christian Farmers Association of Salem County, she approached local growers about gleaning their surpluses for the poor.
Most commercial farms generate surpluses through bountiful harvests, slightly damaged edibles, volatile commodity prices, or customers canceling orders. In the end, perfectly good and healthy produce gets trashed.
At the outset, Montemurno’s idea clicked with farmers. On the first gleaning run, four churchgoers with two vehicles loaded boxes with dinged and odd-shaped veggies. Three nonprofits and one food pantry took all the surplus produce. More volunteers joined up and collected 30,000 pounds during the first growing season.
“We had no clue of our impact,” Montemurno says. “We were just obeying what God led us to do.”
Before COVID-19, as many as 160 volunteers participated, serving 45 nonprofits. In 2020 BoB gave away 199,000 pounds of vegetables. Four years ago, the ministry distributed a record half-million pounds.
First Assembly supports the ministry financially and by encouraging its 60 adherents to volunteer. Such ministries are essential especially during the food insecurity caused by the pandemic.
“You don’t have to be a big church to have a big heart,” says Holt, 70. “We give and God returns it back to us.”
The church also sponsors an annual banquet thanking the farmers and community organizations for their support. Up to 200 people attend and hear the gospel. It’s always stressed that BoB meets needs in Jesus’ name.
Montemurno sleeps well after logging 40 hours every week during the vegetable growing season. It’s hot and sweaty work in the humid Garden State.
“Sometimes I tell myself I can’t keep doing this,” she says. “But the Lord continues to strengthen me and encourages me to keep giving. I look forward to a bountiful harvest of vegetables and souls in the new year. ”