By Sue Sprang

JACKSON – One of Lutheranism’s strengths is the value placed on meeting human need – not just spiritual fulfillment, but physical needs, education, mental and emotional health, and whatever else it takes to make a person whole.

These emphases are set into examples for us in the Gospels: Jesus preaches, teaches, casts out demons of body and mind, and pays attention to what a person needs to be whole. As his followers, we tend to the needs of others, working to bring that wholeness to fruition.

The bookshelves sometimes include other “all things kids” items. (Photo by Cheryl Johnson)

Immanuel Lutheran Church, Jackson, is aware of the needs of its community – and the congregation is finding ways to address some of those needs.

Immanuel has a food pantry that is open every Saturday morning. Approximately 260 people are served each week. The lines can be long, which can be a restless time for any kids who might accompany the adults.

Enter Immanuel members retired Pastor Cheryl Johnson and her husband, retired teacher Wayne Widmann.

In 2015, their pastor, David Eidson, attended a conference from which he brought back the idea of establishing a community library in the church building. Johnson and Widmann immediately connected with the idea and wondered at the possibility of transferring it into the context of the food pantry.

“We looked at one another and said ‘we can do this’,” Johnson said.

One would think a book would be “no big deal” – but when you’re giving it to a child who may never have owned a book, it can be a very big deal. Many children of food pantry families are at-risk. Reading and education are fundamental to the children’s future.

Johnson and Widmann put together a plan for “Books for Kids” and got the congregation on board:

  • “Books for Kids” is open parallel to the food pantry.
  • Books are geared to children of all ages.
  • Parents, grandparents, guardians of children not with them at the pantry are welcome to select books.
  • Each child can select three books on each and every visit.
  • The congregation collects new/gently used books and also gives monetary donations for the purchase of books.

The weekly give-away is organized by Johnson and Widmann.

“We kicked things off on Mother’s Day 2015,” Johnson said. “Books and an offering were placed at the altar and blessed.”

Monetary donations are used to purchase books from dollar stores. Sometimes coloring books and other “all things kids” make their way to the bookshelves.

The couple keeps a record of every book that passes through the give-away. Thanks to Widmann’s education background, books are sorted by age-level reading.

A label is placed in every book. It includes the name of the church – “a place where everyone is welcome.”

Even with the wide assortment of books, there always favorites.

“We never have enough cardboard books,” Johnson said, “and Bible story books go right away.”

Johnson shared that the kids are delighted about the books.

“Kids come running in: ‘How many books can I have today?’” she said. “’My teacher just read this book to us!’”

There are also poignant moments.

“We had a book that featured a child in a wheelchair,” Johnson said. “One of our moms saw it and said ‘I think I need that book.’”

“My son is in a wheelchair,” the mom said, explaining her need. “He’s never had a book that has someone like him.”

“Another mom became really teary,” Johnson said. “Her son is blind. We had a big, beautiful book that had [printed] words, as you’d expect, but also Braille.”

“My son is blind,” the mom said, choosing the book. “He’s never owned a book. And my other son can read it, too.”

The congregation now raises up this ministry every Mother’s Day. There’s a reminder to donate books, but also a nod toward monetary donations.

“We encourage alternative gift-giving,” Johnson said. “We ask to consider giving a donation as a Christmas, birthday, or other gift.”

The food pantry and Books for Kids are two ways Immanuel Lutheran Church helps to bring wholeness to others.

“The books make a big impact,” Johnson said. “The parents encourage reading. And we know that reading and education are one of the first steps out of poverty.”

As of March 24, 2018, Books for Kids has given away 10,155 books.

Three years. Over 10,000 books.