Michael McMillan

Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis CEO Michael McMillan as he announces the organization's "Serving Our Streets" food distribution initiative on Thursday June 4, 2020.

Photo by Wiley Price/St. Louis American

The Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis is ready for the region to take its neighborhood blocks back. It has an innovative strategy to do this utilizing and revitalizing two community institutions with the most basic incentive: food.

The Serving Our Streets Initiative will distribute free food to local families through neighborhood churches, coordinated through one of the Urban League’s core community programs, the Federation of Block Units (FBU). And as people engage with community leaders through the FBU and their neighborhood church, they will be able to pick up free — and fresh — food.
 
Serving Our Streets is the first major programmatic initiative developed by Michael P. McMillan, president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, in partnership with James Clark, his new vice president of Public Safety and Community Response. It develops other new partnerships the Urban League put together to provide food in response to food scarcity and hunger brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated job losses.
 
The Urban League will continue its massive weekly distribution of food and necessities. When Serving Our Streets was announced on Thursday, June 4, they were preparing for their 10th massive giveaway in East St. Louis on Saturday. As Serving Our Streets gets underway, however, families will be able to go to their neighborhood church and engage with community leaders and each other while picking up food. The hookup for necessities then will provide the Urban League with a touch point to offer its other community empowerment services.
 
“We’re going to revitalize the Federation of Block Units through the church,” McMillan said. “The church is the anchor. They can then stabilize the community together. The only way we’re going to get through this is together.”
 
Clark has been organizing neighborhood churches for decades in various capacities, most recently with Better Family Life, where he organized Pulpits to Porches and had churches grill hot dogs and open their doors to get neighbors connected.
 
“We’ve got to get food into the neighborhood through the church,” Clark said.
 
Providing the food are Operation Food Search, the St. Louis Area Foodbank and Ole Tyme Produce. They all have been working together on the massive weekly giveaways with the logistical guidance of Roy Gillespie, veteran Teamsters first responder, a specialist in disaster relief. And the St. Louis region and much of the United States qualifies as a disaster area, between the pandemic and curfews imposed following civil unrest.
 
“We are at an hour we have never seen before,” Clark said. “Planet Earth, America, Missouri, St. Louis, we are teetering now. Anarchy is knocking on the door. The only way to revitalize St. Louis is through the immediate action of the neighborhood church.”
 
Immediate action was taken on Thursday. The announcement at Urban League headquarters in Midtown St. Louis was attended by a who’s who of local black clergy and a number of clergy allies. Pastors signed up for Serve Our Streets and the FBU on the spot.
 
The food they will be serving to their local streets will include fresh produce that Ole Tyme Produce distributes through the federal Farm to Families grant program. But this initiative is not too good for a hot dog.
 
Rev. Alfred Gainey Jr., pastor of Lily of the Valley Missionary Baptist Church, served hot dogs to his Walnut Park neighborhood when approached several years ago by Clark. It was a gateway to even better community service.
 
“James came to me and said he wanted me to serve some hot dogs at the church,” Gainey said. “That led to giving away clothes. That led to a food pantry. Now we are feeding over 200 people every Saturday.”
 
Gainey kept it real.
 
“In Walnut Park, we are feeding a lot of dope addicts and homeless,” Gainey said. “They can’t always walk away with a food box. But they will take a hot dog. Some chips. A soda. A prayer. Salvation.”
 
In a year, Lily of the Valley missed food service only one Saturday — and people came looking for the pastor.
 
“People are hungry,” Gainey said.
 
When Gainey said he would quote from Isaiah 58:10, a number of people listening, masked in the Urban League parking lot, bowed their heads.
 
“And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noon day,” Gainey recited.
 
Then the pastor connected the prophetic scripture back to Serving Our Streets: “It is time for the church to be the light and start shining in our community.”
 
Contact the Urban League at 314-615-3600 or https://www.ulstl.com.
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