Calvary Chapel FTL: Feast of Friendship

Calvary Chapel FTL: Feast of Friendship
Calvary Chapel FTL: Feast of Friendship

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Feast of Friendship: Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale Provides for Frontline Workers During Pandemic

Story by Carmel Flippen
Photos courtesy of Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale

* Name changed to protect privacy

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, simply feeding her family was a daily battle for Jana*, a patient care coordinator at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, FL. As a single mother battling her own serious health issues, Jana was already stretched thin before the crisis hit. Now, like most hospital workers, she struggled daily with the increased physical and emotional burdens caused by extended shifts, reduced staffing, and an overwhelming influx of patients. Who had time or energy, after all that, to deal with the empty shelves and endless lines at the grocery store?

Tonight, though, Jana trudged toward her front door still exhausted, but with a song in her heart. For the last few nights, she had received hot meals at the hospital large enough to feed her whole family. It wasn’t just the food, but the smiles and friendship that came with it, which encouraged her heart. The greatest gifts, though, were the smiles that greeted her now as the door swung open and her boys asked excitedly, “What did you bring us tonight?”

“If you extend your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul, then your light shall dawn in the darkness, and your darkness shall be as the noonday.” Isaiah 58:10

Connecting people to God stand

Employees of The Grill restaurant at Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale, FL, serve hot meals to workers at Holy Cross Hospital. The church-run restaurant served nearly 200 hot meals daily, five days a week, to the hospital’s employees and their families between mid-March and mid-June during the COVID-19 pandemic.

From mid-March to mid-June, Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale’s The Grill restaurant served nearly 200 hot meals daily, five days a week, to Holy Cross’ employees and their families. “It was incredible in itself [for people like Jana] to be able to bring home a meal that’s piping hot, delicious and nutritious, without a strain on their pocket,” said Vanessa Graham, program coordinator of Holy Cross’ Goodstart health education program, and the ministry’s contact at the hospital. “But it was so much more than that. We’ve learned that COVID-19 is not just a health crisis but is causing a mental health crisis. Caring for so many patients that are so ill and hearing so many heartbreaking stories back to back, is emotionally and mentally draining. To have a reprieve, to go where people are happy and smiling, to receive after having given so much, reinvigorated us to face [these] challenges with hope.”

Food boxes

The Grill also served meals to employees at the Florida Medical Center. These food boxes included chicken and corn-on-the-cob.

Team Effort

As CC Fort Lauderdale’s Director of Outreach, Stephanie Gunderson frequently responds to crises locally and internationally, but COVID-19’s massive scale and many unknowns “was something none of us had ever dealt with before,” Stephanie shared. “We believe that being Christ in our community means loving our neighbors, and we recognized this was an open door to serve our neighbors better—but how could we do that?” Pastor Paul Walker, whose relationship with Holy Cross made him a firsthand witness to frontline workers’ struggles, asked the Outreach team if meals could be provided through The Grill, a restaurant on the church campus. “There were many [other] organizations doing one-touch ministry within the medical field,” Stephanie continued. “Realizing this was a long-term pandemic, we wanted to take time to build relationships.”

Two female staff

At Holy Cross Hospital, two staffers look forward to their free meals from The Grill. Throughout the months, strangers became friends. Some employees attended CC Fort Lauderdale’s Easter service.

Led by Director of Food Services JoNese Bird, The Grill staff’s dedication quickly outpaced Stephanie’s expectations. Stephanie’s team had planned to provide the ministry’s relational aspects, but “their team served so well that the Outreach ministry didn't need to be present,” she testified. “Their presence was much more powerful than something our ministry team could do. JoNese’s team reminded [my team] that instead of limiting God on who can be His hands and feet, we should be asking, ‘Who can we bring along with us?’”

Once word of the ministry got out, “There was a line all the way around the outpatient department, rain or shine,” remembered Vanessa, who served alongside The Grill staff each day. “But let me tell you how good our God is: Even if it had been pouring in the afternoon, when it was time to serve that food, it was like He held back the rain. When it was over, it could go back to pouring. I think He was happy for them to serve.”

Hospital staff waiting in line

A long line of employees wait in line to pick up their hot meals at Holy Cross Hospital. When they got there, they were greeted with a warm welcome and smiles, letting the staff know they were loved. The Grill served meals to accommodate individual dietary needs and even served fish on Fridays out of respect for the hospital’s Catholic affiliation.

“We wanted [the hospital workers] to know when they got off work that there would be a warm meal and warm smiles waiting for them,” explained JoNese, “We made sure to look them in the eye, ask ‘How are you doing?’, allow them to share, and let them know they’re loved.” Each week, The Grill handed out menus listing each night’s homemade meal. As they grew to know individuals’ dietary restrictions, they created special meals to accommodate them. During Lent, they served fish on Fridays out of respect for Holy Cross’ Catholic affiliation.

And Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst. John 6:35

JoNese put out signs informing people of Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale’s Easter service. “At first I thought no one was seeing them,” she admitted. “After Easter, I was surprised by how many people stopped by to say, ‘That service was amazing!’ Week after week, we kept hearing people expressing with joy how they were connecting with the services, and it was because of the church's generosity in feeding them.”

Ladies outside

Stephanie Gunderson (left), CC Fort Lauderdale’s director of outreach, and Vanessa Graham, program coordinator of Holy Cross’s Goodstart health education program, talk during the four-month outreach. Vanessa served as the hospital’s liaison with the church and served alongside The Grill staff each day.

As the weeks passed, those in line changed from strangers to familiar faces to friends. “There was such a sense of gratitude,” reflected JoNese. “They were so mindful to check in on us. At another outreach event we had in the evenings, people from Holy Cross would come by after work just to say, ‘Hey, we know you’ve been serving all day; we just want you to know how much it means to us.’”

On the outreach’s last day, the team brought smokers and cooked a brisket feast on-site. “We thought we’d end with a huge celebration,” recounted Stephanie. “Little did we know they’d planned a celebration of their own!” Unbeknownst to them, everyone in line had taken up a collection for their ministry. Vanessa presented it to them along with a giant card and a large sand bucket filled with individual notes, candies, and other small tokens of heartfelt appreciation.

“‘Life-changing’ is what I heard most,” JoNese said of the feedback, but noted it went both ways: “We thought we were going to speak into the lives of others, but because of the love we received, our hearts were forever changed.”

Lady grabs bag with food

A woman receives a meal bag at Holy Cross Hospital. On the last day of the outreach, a grateful hospital staff surprised CC Fort Lauderdale with a collection for the ministry.


Man dropping off bag

Melvin Saenz, a long-time employee of The Grill, delivers food, with no contact, to a COVID-positive family.


Medical center staff

Florida Medical Center employees wait in line for their hot meals.


People praying

CC Fort Lauderdale Outreach staff pray together at the Florida Medical Center.


Serving team

The serving team at the Florida Medical Center includes city officials and a hospital executive.


Staff packing boxes

A mixed group of The Grill employees, CC Fort Lauderdale’s Outreach Team, and staff at the Florida Medical Center prepare to serve food boxes.


Staff serving boxes

City officials and Florida Medical Center staff help serve food.


Women holding dinner boxes

Employees at the Florida Medical Center are happy to receive their hot meals.


All verses above are quoted from the New King James Version.

© 2020 Calvary Chapel Magazine. All rights reserved. Articles or photographs may not be reproduced without the written permission of CCM. All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.® Used by permission.