The Little Giant

By Luska Natali

Iglesia Cristiana Bethel Wesleyana (ICBW) of DeLand, Florida, is a very small church with a membership roster of about 35 members, and most of them only speak Spanish. At that tiny church, however, about 60 families, whose majority speaks only English, show up on a weekly basis to pick up food for their households.

When Pastor Isoniel 'Sonny' Melendez, a native of Puerto Rico, and his wife of 50 years, Nilda, began their ministry at ICBW in 2008, they had no idea how big of an impact they would be making in their community. With hearts focused on serving the underserved and loving the unloved, the Melendezes have sought each opportunity to reach people of all races and tongues by closing the multicultural gap. What started with a Bible study meeting on Wednesday nights soon evolved into God's even bigger plans for ICBW.

“The small congregation with a big vision

In 2012, a local food bank recruited their help with the distribution of groceries in their neighborhood.

The small congregation with a big vision to feed people both physically and spiritually, said "yes" to the call and adopted Matthew 14 as its guiding force. In this passage, Jesus performed the miracle of feeding 5,000 people with just five loaves of bread and two fish. Shortly before the miracle took place, the disciples told Jesus to let the multitude go into the villages to buy themselves food, but he rebuked them saying, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat” (v. 16).

When the food bank closed its doors three years later, the ICBW pastors felt that they could not stop helping those in their community who had come to depend on them for food. They knew they did not have what it would take to do it alone, so they prayed and asked God to help them help those in need. They knew they were supposed to do more than just pass out bags of groceries to those who were physically hungry; they wanted to be a place where people could come and find solace during their sorrows. They trusted God and obeyed his lead.

“We are known in the community as a church that understands pain and hurt,” said Nilda Melendez, reflecting the compassion of someone who deeply cares about the spiritual well-being of those who seek the food pantry services. “At the food pantry, it is not uncommon for someone to see two people whose languages are so different embracing in silence. The tears they shed and the smiles they smile go beyond any language barrier. We don’t want to just fill their bellies. We want to share the love of Jesus with them,” said Nilda.

The Melendezes also alluded to God’s way of answering prayer. “One day we prayed that we needed gold, and two hours later a truck pulled up and dropped off 800 pounds of Golden Nugget potatoes for our pantry. God does have a sense of humor,” they said.

With hearts focused on serving the underserved and loving the unloved, the Melendezes have sought each opportunity to reach people of all races and tongues by closing the multicultural gap.

The food pantry opens every Thursday, from 10:00 a.m. to noon. Volunteers arrive early to sort, divide and bag the food, then pray and prepare for the public to arrive. “Those who benefit from the pantry’s generosity also share their own generosity in the form of random acts of kindness,” said Nilda. “The food pantry at ICBW is called Pay-It-Forward-DeLand, because the name expresses how kindness can generate more kindness, and those who come for food are encouraged to pay their kindness forward. Some of the testimonials are very touching.”

One of the pantry services beneficiaries said, “I invited my neighbor to share a meal with some of the food I received.”

Another said, “I was at the laundromat and noticed a homeless person who was about my size. I gave him some of my clean clothes. I then paid a washing cycle for the clothes he took off.”

Because of trust and obedience to God, the little church in DeLand has continually fed thousands of people in its area over the years and has been appointed as a distribution center for The Emergency Food Assistance Program. A partnership with Second Harvest has earned them the title of number one agency for 2018 in Volusia County.

ICBW is just like a worker ant who can carry 5,000 times more than its own weight. The little giant in DeLand, Florida, thrives in its mission to feed the hungry, in spite of its size.