Peggy Kirkpatrick told the Boonslick Prayer Breakfast how God worked through her to get the food bank through crises like the 1993 flood and the 2007 recession.
“Have you ever asked God to let you do something big?” Peggy Kirkpatrick asked the crowd Thursday morning in the Knights of Columbus Hall for the Boonslick Community Prayer Breakfast.
The flood of 1993 came less than a year after Kirkpatrick took over as director of the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri. When she started, it didn’t have enough food for everyone. Then, the Missouri and Mississippi rivers were flooding, and 27 of the 29 counties the food bank serves were declared disaster areas. Entire communities were evacuated and moved away from their homes, and the need for the food bank was as desperate as ever.
The food bank had $315 and an empty warehouse, Kirkpatrick said. She started calling government agencies and the Red Cross for help. They couldn’t, so she did what she should have done in the first place, she said: Pray.
The message was clear to Kirkpatrick. She had to start giving away food for free. At the time, the food bank sold its food, and that made up 45 percent of their income, she said.
“Now God’s saying ‘give it away for free,’ and we didn’t even have any food,” she said.
Still, trusting in God, Kirkpatrick and the food bank started giving out food for free. In six weeks, the feed bank went from having $315 to $100,000, and from an empty warehouse to four warehouses stuffed wall-to-wall.
“Now, for those who are logical, you can say, ‘It was a flood. It was on the news every night. Of course that happened,’” Kirkpatrick said.
But it wasn’t a given without Kirpatrick letting go and letting God take over, she said. At one point, when they had three warehouses full with food, she got a call from a woman in Lenoir, North Carolina, a city of 18,000 people in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Kirkpatrick put on a Carolina drawl as she recalled the woman saying: “Honey, do you need food?”
Kirkpatrick told her yes. The woman said she was sending three semis full of food over, and that they would be there the next day. Hauling food from the Appalachians to mid-Missouri takes more than a day, so Kirkpatrick told the woman it wasn’t possible.
“Oh, honey, I sent ‘em out two days ago and said, ‘Keep going west until I tell you to stop,’” the woman responded.
Kirkpatrick didn’t have time to make room for the food. The three warehouses they were using were already full. She didn’t know what to do. Overwhelmed, she went to bed and left it in God’s hands, she said.
When she got to work the next day, a man was sitting in her office.
“Peggy, do you need a warehouse?” he asked.
He had a 120,000 square foot warehouse two blocks from the food bank, and told her she could use it as long as she needed it. Kirkpatrick and her team went to work getting the warehouse ready. They had the utilities turned on and everything ready to go just 10 minutes before the trucks arrived, she said.
In the early 1990s, she was a computer programmer working at the University of Missouri in Columbia. You never get to park close to where you work at MU, she said. To shorten down her walk, she cut through alleys behind fraternity houses.
Fitzpatrick would see homeless people going through the dumpsters behind the houses. Fitzpatrick is nosy, she said, so she watched them as she walked. Columbia had a deposit ordinance for bottles and cans, so Fitzpatrick thought they were going through the mother-lode of empty cans and bottles that is a fraternity dumpster. At the time, she saw them as “drunks and bums.”
“That’s what we’ve always done,” she said. “If they’re different than us, we label them.”
One day, she saw a homeless man eating out of the trash, and she was horrified.
“To my great shame, I looked at that, looked away and kept walking,” she said. “The first thing that came into my mind was, ‘That’s not my problem.’”
For seven years, Kirkpatrick kept walking past, saying it was the government’s problem to solve, or the university’s. One day, she saw another person eating from the trash, and she had to say a prayer.
“God, this is wrong,” she said. “You need to do something, or you need to send someone to do something.”
The next thing that came into her mind was a question.
“What about you, Peggy?” she said. “Why don’t you do something? You’re someone.”
She didn’t think she was qualified. She wanted God to send the “social service army” or the “Christian cavalry,” she said.
God doesn’t choose the qualified, though, he chooses the willing, she said.
“By your willingness, he qualifies you,” she said.
Kirkpatrick was willing, and she took on directing the food bank. It was in rough shape. It was in debt, failing to raise money, and didn’t have enough food, she said. It was dire, and Kirkpatrick wondered why God sent her there.
When you’re willing God will put you in the darkest place, because if you believe in Him, you bring the light of Jesus the moment you walk in, she said.
“That’s our job, not walking into something that’s fully lit,” she said.
When Kirkpatrick found out the food bank was misusing grants, she reported it. She tried to run the food bank God’s way, because that’s the only way that will work, she said.
The food bank fell into another dark period around 2007, when the U.S. economy was going into a recession. There were natural disasters elsewhere in the U.S., which meant food was going those places, and the food bank was struggling to keep enough to feed locals. It had to take out a line of credit after going through a lot of its reserves trying to buy food to stay open.
Fearing bankruptcy, some of Kirkpatrick’s team left the food bank. Even Kirkpatrick’s confidence was shaken. She knew she was doing God’s work by feeding the poor and hungry. It was one of the biggest challenges to her faith she ever faced, she said.
“I know what the Word says, but I wasn’t seeing it,” she said. “And I know every scripture in the Bible where God says he’s gonna take care of the poor and the needy, but I wasn’t seeing it.”
But Kirkpatrick knew she had to walk by faith and not by sight, and she knew she just had to keep going. There were thousands of people who relied on the food bank. Kirkpatrick didn’t have food, or money, or a plan, so she prayed. She saw herself running an Olympic marathon, entering the stadium for the final lap after a grueling 26 miles. She saw herself past the finish line, and knew they were going to be okay.
“Nothing had changed in the natural, but everything had changed in the spiritual,” she said.
The food bank started getting above water and paying off its bills. Then, in 2008, the Columbia Orthopaedic Group paid off the food bank’s $250,000 mortgage. The economy was falling deeper into recession, but the food bank broke every record for fundraising and food distribution that year, Kirkpatrick said. All it took was for Kirkpatrick to have faith that God’s plan for the food bank would work, she said.
Kirkpatrick closed her speech by challenging the audience to follow the lead of the prophet Isaiah, who, when God asked who he should send, responded, “Here I am, Lord, send me,” according to the Bible.
“We have poverty all over the place,” Kirkpatrick said. “Anyone who’s addicted to drugs is in poverty. Anyone who can’t pay their bills is in poverty. Anyone who can’t eat is in poverty.”
Kirkpatrick asked the crowd to say Isaiah’s prayer. Instead of trying to find somebody else who should be responsible for addressing poverty, say, “Send me.”