How Chili and Beer Turned into Meals for the Homeless

The Ada Chili and Beer Festival has grown into an event that has drawn thousands each December.  People from all over the state gather in the parking lot at The Community Church in Ada to sample the best beer and chili from restaurants and cook-off contestants, hear live music, and celebrate the beginning of the Christmas season.  Few people realize just how much good is accomplished with the purchase of each tasting ticket.  

It has been well documented that a primary beneficiary of the Ada Chili and Beer Festival is the Ronald McDonald House of Western Michigan.  Families who are travelling for medical care for their children are served graciously every day by “The House”.  

But you may not know that festival proceeds also go to benefit a program implemented by The Community Church in Ada called Missional Living Grants.  This grant program is offered to members of the church with a simple premise: To take whatever they are passionate about to make the world a better place, and use the grant as seed money to make it a reality.  Previous grants have varied from implementing a Martin Luther King Jr. day of service for Ada Elementary school to helping bring clean water to homes in Haiti.  

COVID-19 Impacts Homeless Neighbors

Helen and Roy Van Essendelft have always cultivated relationships and cared for our neighbors in the Heartside District of Grand Rapids.  This winter Helen noticed an alarming reality.  The shelters, which are critical for the homeless during the harsh winter months, became very unsafe with the threat of the spread of COVID-19.  This removed those who usually rely on shelters from even more resources than usual.  

Deciding to act, Helen and Roy began a grassroots campaign to collect supplies. They gathered snacks, personal hygiene products, warm clothing, and many other items and began bringing them to tent communities and anywhere they could find people in need.  

Seeing that this was a need that would continue on for many months, and that there was so much more to do, Helen applied for a Missional Living Grant for $3,000.  The concept was that with this seed money, both she and Roy could gather volunteers each Saturday to put together meal kits, snack kits, and other supplies to hand out each weekend.  

A Dilemma

When these grant applications come in, the church Deacons review them and then award the grants if the application meets the criteria.  This project was clearly in line with the values of the grant, and was an obvious value to the community.  There was just one dilemma: There was no Ada Chili and Beer Festival in 2020 because of the global pandemic, which meant no new funds had come in to support the grant program.  

After considering this reality, the Deacons had little hesitation.  They needed to award this grant, especially this year.  The church has done much work in the past years moving from a mindset of scarcity, to a mindset of abundance, and this was another big step on that journey.

Generosity Multiplies

Volunteers came quickly to pack supplies and prep them for distribution.  Helen and Roy have continued to work tirelessly to gather food and care items to hand out.  

On January 17, in her blog All Things GR, Helen wrote, “Two major positive changes occurred for us this week, the first being obtaining financial support from The Community Church in Ada who has funded our food expenses through the end of March. And the other was receiving a considerable amount of donated goods from Guiding Light Works in Grand Rapids of the items we give out each week. We are so appreciative to both of these non-profit organizations. We are also very thankful for the personal donations of goods and money from both friends and strangers that all help to show the homeless and/or disenfranchised people how valued they are and that we see them.”

Because of the supplementing donations that came in, she believes that this project can likely continue into the summer, and perhaps beyond.

A Festival Like No Other

The Ada Chili and Beer Festival will be back as we emerge from this pandemic.  The next time you gather under the big tent with friends, tasting a unique chili and sipping an incredible craft beer, know that your participation in that event is doing some serious good in this world.  Who knew that chili and beer could bless so many people? (Well, most of us already knew that, but you know what I mean.)

by Billy Norden