From the outside, all you see is a large metal building, a line of people wrapped around it and a canopy to keep the elements off of them as they wait. From the outside, it looks like any other food pantry, but on the inside, Manna House in Huntsville, Alabama, is so much more.
Fran Fluhler wants you to come inside. She wants to know your name, and once she has met you, she will make you feel like you are the most important person on the planet. Whether you come once a week, once a month or once a year, she just wants you to come. The day that you do come, the one thing that you can offer — a smile, a hug or a kind word — may be just what someone needs.
Volunteers are welcome Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 2:00-7:00. Show up when you can, for as long as you can. Bring your family — those ages 4 and up. “Come and stay as long as your back, your knees and your kids can endure,” Fran says.
She wants you to come and love and be loved like only Jesus can do.
When you walk through the door, the first line offers pantry items. Volunteers will greet you with smiles, offering what God has provided for this particular night. A can of beans, a bag of rice, a box of cereal or a rare bottle of laundry detergent might be available. Through the set of double doors, you will find perishable food — fresh produce grown in God’s garden, bread and highly coveted hot boxed meals.
“Who are those boxed meals for?” someone may ask.
“These are for someone who can’t cook tonight,” might be the answer, referring perhaps to someone who had a dialysis treatment, chemotherapy session or someone who is living in her car. And the person who asked will gladly pass it by, leaving it for someone who needs it more than they do.
A contagious understanding fills the room. An understanding to only take what is needed to help get through until the next paycheck.
“Would you like a jar of peanut butter?” a volunteer may ask.
“No, I still have a little left at home. Maybe next time,” knowing full well that next time may be a long way away.
If you’re lucky, the end of the line may have toothpaste, deodorant or toilet paper. Guaranteed, someone is waiting at the end of the line, willing to say hello with a smile, to help you carry items to your car, or to say a prayer with you.
Coolers on the Front Porch
Although Fran will be the first to tell you that it’s not about her, she was at the center of where this story began. After being laid off, a struggling friend asked Fran for a helping hand. She needed a ride to Tanner, Alabama, where she heard she could get free food to feed her family. Fran graciously agreed.
In Tanner, they were greeted by an older gentleman, Grandpa Culbertson. When he saw Fran, he exclaimed, “You’ve got the call of God for food all over you!” He asked Fran to return the following week. With her three young children in tow, Fran met with Grandpa Culbertson again. His vision? It was for Fran to feed the hungry people back in her county, and he was going to help her.
Fran contacted agencies in Madison County, Alabama, to identify families who were in need. With food she purchased from Grandpa Culbertson, Fran started a food pantry using coolers on her front porch. After serving families in this way for more than 12 years, more needs were identified, and it seemed that the front porch wasn’t going to be able to hold all the food that was needed. Friends suggested Fran start looking for a building.
In December 2004, the Lord provided one.
That building became Manna House, a 501c3 public charity, where volunteers from all walks of life and all denominations come to serve. Over half of the volunteers who stand on the serving side of the food line were once on the receiving side — an incredible thing to witness and a beautiful image of Christ. These are the volunteers who show up on a regular basis because they know how life-changing a trip through Manna House can be.
One volunteer told Fran, “When I pull into this parking lot, I feel like I’m at home with my momma. This is where my journey began.”
One favorite volunteer at Manna House is an older gentleman who lives in a nearby senior facility. His own personal shopping cart resides at Manna House. Throughout the evening, he gathers items and places them in his cart — canned meats, canned vegetables, macaroni and cheese, soft drinks, fresh produce and hygiene products.
At the end of the evening, the items in the overflowing grocery cart are loaded into a car and transported to the senior facility. At the facility, volunteers load everything back into his home-base grocery cart, and he delivers the items to those in his building who aren’t able to make the trip to Manna House themselves. He knows what each person would choose if he or she were able to go, and he brings it to them. And though he is soft-spoken in words, it is his voice you will hear ringing throughout the building, singing old familiar hymns — loud and strong.
With each meal, Manna House serves over 1,000 families each night. The beauty of this ministry is that, while it is an organization founded and named after food, in actuality, it is about much more than the food. It’s about a woman who has been burdened by cancer and can’t help her husband make the household payments anymore. It’s about a single mother whose simple operation turned into a four-month hospital stay who relies on Manna House to keep her children fed. It’s about a father who has lost his job, and his family would rather sleep in the car than be split up and sent to various shelters.
The warm food is like a hug, letting them know things will get better, their cries for help are heard, and they are not forgotten by people or by God. It’s about showing people how God can change their lives — one warm plate of food, half-used bottle of shampoo and prayer with a volunteer at a time.
While it is often Fran who makes the calls and sends the emails, it is the Lord who provides. Fran wouldn’t have it any other way. Every day she gets to witness as God sends volunteers and resources and weaves a story of needs being met.
Since the story started with Fran’s family, it is pretty neat that her family is still an integral part of the Manna House story. Her three adult children volunteer at Manna House in many different areas. The volunteers who show up to serve and those who have been served have become like family.
Fran invites you to bring your family and serve alongside them, or find a food pantry near you to do the same for them. Let your young children experience how it feels to give to others. Watch your teenagers as they learn the importance of sacrificing and the unimportance of material possessions.
Stand back and watch in awe at how the Lord provides.