Don’t use the word “retirement” near 86-year-old John Williamson.
On a 95-degree day, Williamson pushes grocery carts full of food boxes to hand out to people who stop at the food and clothing pantry at Sunnyside Assembly of God Church in Jeffersonville, Indiana.
He breathes hard after an hour without a break from the blazing sun.
But there’s no stopping him now.
Williamson never doubts God’s call to open this pantry 17 years ago. He retired from his own engineering firm in 1990 at age 55, assisted with a clothing ministry in New Albany, then started a food pantry and clothing ministry in Jeffersonville. His wife Sharon works beside him as the pantry serves about 100 families a day.
In many ways, it didn’t make sense. He was already pushing 70, had two heart surgeries, atrial fibrillation and carried an oxygen tank. He said God keeps him going.
As the pantry meets needs, the focus is always on meeting the greatest need: to know Jesus. Volunteers look for open doors to share the Gospel. Williamson said the uncertainty brought on by COVID-19 has caused many to seek God.
The pantry runs like clockwork. Racks of clothing are set far apart in the church parking lot so people can take what they need.
Before COVID-19, those who came to the pantry parked, then came into the building to fill out paperwork, pray with a counselor and talk about where they stand with God. Now there is a drive-through line.
God still works through surging numbers of people looking for help. Volunteers also deliver food to seniors who cannot come to the pantry. Each food box contains about $200 worth of groceries, including meat, vegetables and treats.
“We are lucky in that people can get jobs in warehouses in this community, but there are still a lot of needs,” Williamson said. “We used to say they could come once a month. Now we have no boundaries on help. Some need it every week.”
But the pantry is about far more than food.
“We keep track of those who come,” Williamson said. “In the last 17 years, 2,710 have decided to follow Jesus. We give them a new birth certificate that identifies them as a child of God and make sure they get plugged into a local church.”
Pastor Steve Kerberg welcomed the pantry to his church, gave them space to store food and supports outreach.
“I think every church needs to reach out in their community,” Kerberg said. “John does it right. A lot of churches come to learn how to do this. This seems like a prosperous community, but there’s a lot of need.”
Williamson said he never asks for food to stock the pantry. About 60% of his food supply comes from Dare to Care, but increased need often creates gaps.
“I can be almost dead in the water and need food for our folks and Lisa Reynolds from LifeBridge at Southeast will call and send a shipment of stuff,” he said. “God always provides.”
Williamson plans to grip the plow until he takes his last breath.
“I’ve been ready to check out a few times,” he said. “But God didn’t tell me to quit. I’d just get fat and die if I did.”