Of faith and food

Feeding the hungry at Lighthouse Ministries

By ANNEMARIE SCHUETZ
Posted 12/8/21

The holidays are about joy and gifts and charity, but for many, they are also about faith.

This is the start of the holiday season at one Bible-based church. In November, not much had changed yet: …

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Of faith and food

Feeding the hungry at Lighthouse Ministries

Posted

The holidays are about joy and gifts and charity, but for many, they are also about faith.

This is the start of the holiday season at one Bible-based church. In November, not much had changed yet: the food pantry is, as usual, in full swing. But with Christmas approaching, the pastor took time to reflect on what it means to be a conservative Christian in these divided times.

LIBERTY, NY — It’s the holidays at Lighthouse Ministries, a Pentecostal church in Liberty. The decorations aren’t up yet, but food and clothing are everywhere; it’s the third Thursday of the month, food pantry day, the week before Thanksgiving.  

Sometimes, there is a hunger that goes beyond the belly. The search for answers, for certainty, for the truth beyond truth. Maybe not everyone experiences it, and these answers don’t appeal to all. But this food is there too, for the asking.

The food pantry, 15 minutes to opening

Maybe 20 men and women have gathered outside Lighthouse. Bundled up in coats, they sit on the steps or stand and smoke, and they talk among themselves.

Inside, it’s a hive of purposeful activity. A handful of volunteers work in the kitchen, packing, rolling heavy boxes on an office chair to a pallet. Extra workers from other churches come by to help. Chris, a volunteer, is the youngest of the group, and he carries the heavy boxes of food out to the distribution area. Pastor Kathie Ienuso, the wife of Pastor Rich Ienuso, is collecting more food from ShopRite in Liberty.

The church building is small. There’s the main room for services, a room to the side where Sunday School is held, a foyer where you’re greeted as you walk in on Sundays.

The food pantry might occupy the rest of the rooms, but the faith of the volunteers is present everywhere.

In church, November 7

For all the talk about declining parishioner numbers, Lighthouse is almost full this random Sunday. Maybe 50, 70 people? More trickle in during the service. Those who come to church here work all hours and shift work is unpredictable.

The congregants are multi-racial. They are families, they are solitary. Some call out during the service, others sit quietly. “We teach and preach that we are all created in the image of God,” said Rich Ienuso. “We are of the human race.”

Kathie Ienuso is leading the hymns. “Come, now is the time to worship. Come, now is the time to give your heart.”

An older lady sings along, one hand raised in the air. Other hands are raised, people reaching for God.

Lighthouse is Bible-based. “I recognize the Bible as God’s only authoritative rule book for doctrine, teaching, guidance, morality, spiritual matters, instruction,” Rich Ienuso said. The Bible is the road map to a Christian life, which means following Jesus. “Those who realize that they are a sinner and need a Savior, come to repentance and accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior.”

It is Pentecostal. Dating from either the earliest church or the dawn of the 20th century, depending on your stance, Pentecostalism is based on the conviction that the Holy Spirit can fill a human and give spiritual gifts and leave blessings.

It is fundamentalist. “We believe the doctrines of the Bible: Salvation by faith alone, filling of the Holy Spirit,” he said. The sinlessness of Jesus, his death and resurrection and return, the importance of water baptism and holy communion.

“We offer love, acceptance and respect, as well as meeting physical needs,” he said.

That means hunger; that means the food pantry.

Food pantry: Ten minutes to opening

Volunteers Carolyn and Esther handle the intake. People come in bearing clothes and toys; they’re sent to the tables with their burden, and the tables are already piled high. Last month, they distributed coats; as Christmas gets closer the toy drive will bring in presents for the kids that we can hear outside, running around and yelling.

Inside, the organizational dance gets more complex. Kathie gets back from Shop-Rite with the store’s donations. The kitchen is bursting at the seams.

Much of the food comes from the Regional Food Bank. “An 18-wheeler brings it to Monticello,” Rich Ienuso says. “It’s 3,000-6,000 pounds of food. Shop-Rite helps with cereals and bread, cake.”

Food is given to anyone who asks. You don’t have to be religious; you don’t have to be Christian. They don’t ask about sexual preferences. There are no sermons on food pantry day, just a sign reminding people about the “one true God.”

In church: inclusion

The parishioners at Lighthouse don’t all speak English. A group at the back listens while a translator turns the sermon into Spanish. Some are in their church finery, some are not. Some wear masks against COVID-19; some don’t.

Everyone sits together.

The members come from different races and countries. “Jesus loves everyone:  red, brown, yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight,” Rich Ienuso said later. “Jesus said to make disciples of all nations… The Gospel is for everyone, no exception.”

Bible-based Christianity accepts anyone willing to follow Jesus, but for them, sin matters. If one has been guilty of sinning in the past, fine—all are sinners. But going forward, you are supposed to turn away from that life. God “does not tolerate sin and transgression of His laws,” he said. “Sin has to be atoned for. Only a sinless, perfect sacrifice can achieve that. Jesus is the only One. God hates sin.” And the Holy Spirit, he added, is the one who convicts you of that sin.

Not everyone would feel comfortable at Lighthouse. No doubt some visit and then go elsewhere. “The only way to heaven, and to have one’s sins forgiven is through Jesus alone. There are many churches that preach that message that are not Penetcostal. If they are born again according to John 3:-1-16, they are Christian.”

The food pantry opens

The volunteers gather. Rich prays, and Kathie adds a quiet, “Yes, Jesus.”

“Bless each of us, and give us Your strength,” he says, and it is time.

The pace picks up in the kitchen as the doors open. People come in quietly, get their food, collect clothes, leave. The kitchen workers keep things moving. Food into boxes, boxes to the pallet, boxes out front.

There is no pressure on those getting food. They don’t need to come to Lighthouse for services, or to any church. That day, the point is to make sure the hungry are fed, and if their souls hunger, that door too is open.

“If we have a pulse, we have a purpose,” Rich said. “God’s plans are always good. He doesn’t deny us of our personality; we can use who we are to fulfill His plan on earth. Everything we do is to bring glory to Him.”

In church: Politics

For some, evangelical churches equal right-wing politics.

In his sermons, Rich Ienuso doesn’t shy from politics, and those are conservative. He lays out the Biblical case for politics in the church. St. Paul talking to leaders; Jesus and Pilate.

Voting one’s Christian conscience matters. In church he said, “Some leaders have the spirit of Antichrist.” That spills out into the overall culture. Divorces. Abortion. “Our taxes have been killing babies… More than 50 percent of people have children out of wedlock. Human trafficking. The apostate Church, defining success in terms of square footage. Governments trying to fix things through force. Wake up, Church.”

“Not all politicians are corrupt,” he said later. “There are Christian politicians. The political system may be corrupt, but Christians are to be salt and light.” Salt to cauterize an injured culture, and light to show the way out.

Lighthouse Ministries, Pastor Rich Ienuso, Pentecostal faith

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