By Caroline Clark and Shyler Johnson
Thomas Phillips walked down a street in Atlanta, heading to Dollar General, looking to quench his thirst after a long workout. Instead, he found himself being called to the local food pantry.
Phillips didn’t know much about the area, having moved from Los Angeles to be closer to his family. But on that day, as he was crossing the street, a car stopped to ask him where the drop-off for clothes and food donations was.
He noticed a box of jeans down the road outside a gate; not knowing much, he directed the car there and crossed the street. After getting his Gatorade, Phillips began to walk home when he heard something say, “Go back.”
“I was tired, I just worked out, and I wanted to get home,” Phillips said. But again, he heard the voice say, “Go back.” Phillips attributes this little voice to God calling him to the food bank.
Six years later, Phillips is the Fountain of Hope Food Bank director in Atlanta, Georgia. The food pantry started by handing out 25 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches a day, and now it serves nearly 30,000 food-insecure people a month.
The Fountain of Hope Food Bank’s success comes in part from food deliveries funded by the Black 14 philanthropic organization in partnership with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Black 14 refers to a group of 14 former University of Wyoming football players who were kicked off the team in 1969 for asking their coach whether they could wear black armbands in a game against BYU, which is sponsored by the Church. The Church did not allow Blacks to hold the priesthood until 1978, something the Black 14 wanted to change back in 1969 when their scholarships were taken away.
Once at odds over civil rights, these partnered organizations now provide truckloads of food to various food pantries across the United States to fight food insecurity. A team of BYU journalism students and staff recently traveled to interview members of the Black 14 in their hometowns and to witness the results of their partnership with the Church.
At Harvest Hope Food Bank in Florence, South Carolina, the truckload of food pulled up at just the right moment.
“We’re in the perfect storm,” said Chad Scott, director of development agency relations at Harvest Hope Food Bank.
Scott said because of the pandemic and the government subsidies over the last few years, and subsidies coming to an end in the last few months, there had been a higher demand for food. Harvest Hope’s pallets were nearly empty when the Deseret food delivery arrived.
“In our 41-year history, we’ve never had this little food coming into one of our highest needs for food. (The food delivery) was truly an answer to prayer,” Scott said. “If it weren’t for the Latter-day Saints Church and the Black 14, there would be kids going hungry tomorrow.”
A miracle made possible through the Black 14, “this food is about way more than just filling bellies, it’s about filling souls,” Scott said.
Mel Hamilton and Tony McGee are two of the Black 14. McGee has cultivated relationships with food banks in Atlanta, whereas Hamilton is more focused on food banks in North Carolina and South Carolina.
Both have made a significant impact on those around them while mending relationships with The Church of Jesus Christ and finding common ground in a shared humanitarian purpose.
Amid heartache and ultimate reconciliation, the Black 14 and the Church mended relationships. They say they’ve built a beautiful partnership to help others fight food insecurity.
“One thing that I have said as I get more food out, there’s no color on those boxes. This is the Latter-day Saints and the Black 14 trying to help anybody we can,” McGee said.
McGee, Black 14 Charities and the Church delivered a truckload of 27,000 pounds of food on May 3, 2022, to the Fountain of Hope Food Bank. In the first week of May, this was one of three food drops sponsored by both organizations in the Southeastern region of the United States.
McGee said charity work is simple. “It comes down to right and wrong,” he said. “You take the Black out, the White out, and everything you can, you go with right and wrong, and you’ll be all right. And within that, you always have to have God in your life because you can’t make it without Him.”
Alongside McGee at the Atlanta food drop-off was Elder Andrew Galt, an Area Seventy for the Church. Together, the men shared scripture and conversed about furthering God’s work through charity and the love of His children.
“Every time we’re doing something for somebody else, we know we’re doing the work of God,” Galt said. “I think it’s all directed by God. It’s just ministering angels, pulling people together to do what’s right for God’s children.”
Mel and Carrie Hamilton also play a large part in helping those facing food insecurity. Mel, a member of the Black 14, worked in education for most of his career. As an educational administrator, he saw a lot of food insecurity.
“He would come home and talk about a family or some kids and their mom that was living out of their car. He would help them find a place to stay and get food,” Carrie Hamilton, Mel’s wife said.
Although Mel was familiar with food insecurity when he worked in education, years later he reconnected with the cause and the Black 14 charity. He found his way to food banks in North Carolina and South Carolina through a local radio talk show host, Derrick Anderson.
Mel had connected with Elder Gifford Nielsen, a General Authority Seventy in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, before learning about the food need in his local community. Mel was familiar with the Church and the humanitarian work they did for various communities, so he decided to reach out to Elder Nielsen to see if he could help with the food insecurity in the area.
After communicating and writing a proposal for Elder Nielsen, the food was soon on its way “and that’s how it all got started,” Mel said.
“I think they gave us nine truckloads of food the first time. We went to Washington D.C., Massachusetts, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Ohio. Nine different communities we took to serve food to,” Mel said, adding that’s how the whole nonprofit started.
From listening to the radio to making a phone call, and now a continued partnership with The Church of Jesus Christ and the Black 14 to fund and deliver food to food banks across the country.
“I feel I can’t explain the feeling when that truck drove up with the food. I didn’t know what it was, it was just something that went through my body that made me warm all over, and to see that happen then, to see the people come and get the food is the amazing thing,” Mel said.
Aside from the miracles met in food deliveries, Mel and members of the Church have built strong and lasting relationships. He recounted a time when his granddaughter was very sick in the hospital.
“My granddaughter almost died. She was in a coma, and I thought I was going to lose it,” Mel said. Two missionaries came to the hospital to give his granddaughter a priesthood blessing.
“My granddaughter was in an induced coma she opened her eyes and said, ‘Thank you,’ and went back to sleep. When I saw that I knew I needed to get serious about the Church,” Mel recounted. “I mean, that was a miracle.”
From working with impoverished children as an administrator to helping with Black 14 philanthropies and food donations, Mel said he knew that God was in control.
“God knew exactly what He was doing. All my life. So, it’s all revolved around God. He puts me where He wants me when He wants me. It’s all part of God’s plan, and I really, truly believe that,” Mel said.
Members of the Black 14 and the Church are delivering multiple tons of food, helping communities and making miracles through humanitarian work.
“That’s what we’re all about,” he said of the partnership between the Black 14 and the Church. “Feeling good and helping others. I’ve felt very, very (grateful), and very, very humble, and I always will.”
Pittsfield, Massachusetts, is the largest town in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, and is surrounded by large trees that tower above the buildings and its 44,000 residents.
One of those residents is Tony Gibson, a member of the Black 14. Gibson finished school at the University of Wyoming after being excused from the football team with his former teammates and moved to Pittsfield shortly after graduation. He worked for a power company for many years. In the last few years, he and fellow Black 14 members have reunited to create a philanthropic organization.
After seeing a need in his community and reuniting with his fellow members of the Black 14, Gibson suggested that they send food to a local food pantry in his area.
“It’s hard for most people to think about that there are people that are hungry,” Gibson said.
The Christian Center is the oldest nonprofit in the Berkshire County Social Service Agency at 130 years old. Betsy Sherman is the executive director of the Christian Center.
“What we do is outreach to the community in the form of a food pantry, lunch and a clothing boutique,” Sherman said. They also offer a referral service to help individuals find other programs that can offer other services such as housing and phones.
When Gibson decided to send food to the Pittsfield area, he worked with the chairman of the board of the Christian Center, Patrick Gable.
“I had just started working here when Patrick came in one day and said, ‘I found somebody who’s going to give us 40,000 pounds of food,’” Sherman said.
Before the arrival of the food, the Christian Center had never received such a large donation. They didn’t have the proper resources to take and store that much food all at once. However, with the help of Gibson and members of the community and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Christian Center found a way to take in and direct 40,000 pounds of food.
Christen Buyack was part of the group of individuals who showed up to help. Buyack’s husband had just been called as the bishop of a local ward and the Church notified him that a large donation was coming to Pittsfield.
“We showed up and we served and there were a lot of people that came and helped,” Buyack said.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 13.8 million American households (approximately 10 percent of all households) are food-insecure. Food banks and community centers that provide aid services saw increased needs during the COVID-19 pandemic the last couple of years.
About 400 miles south of the Christian Center in Pittsfield lies the Spirit of Faith Christian Center in Brandywine, Maryland.
Paired with the Greater Expectations Outreach Ministry, they were another recipient of a large donation of food from the Church.
Another member of the Black 14, Tony McGee, has connections in the Washington, D.C., area so it was no surprise when several large donations were directed to different agencies there.
Wayne Smith is a member of the Spirit of Faith Christian Center. He was present the day the Church delivered its large donation to Maryland.
“It was an unbelievable line,” Smith said. “There were cars around the block.”
McGee also coordinated donations for the Capital Area Food Bank, which provides 45 million meals to people in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia.
While they receive large donations more often than the smaller food banks, the Church’s donation was still one of the largest that the Capital Area Food Bank has received — equaling about 30,000 meals.
Melanie Rigsby is a food sourcing specialist at the Capital Area Food Bank. She helps coordinate donations that come in each day, and was able to help with the donation that the Church delivered.
The donation included things that other donations would also include such as pasta, cans of fruits and vegetables and soups. However, it was unique, not only because of its large size but also because there were more unusual items such as baked goods and box mixes.
“(These) are things we don’t often carry here at the food bank,” Rigsby said. “I think our families and our clients really appreciate those because if they’re celebrating a birthday, they might not have the funds to go purchase cake mix, but if they’re getting it at their food pantry, then it means that they can still have that celebration.”
HOPE Community Services in New Rochelle, New York, also received a donation from the Church. In addition to a food pantry, HOPE community Services maintains a soup kitchen and other resources such as housing and community outreach.
Walter Ritz has been the executive director of Home Community Services since 2019, just months before the COVID-19 pandemic would sweep the nation and change food insecurity forever.
Food distribution outlets across the country were struggling to continue having enough food to properly serve their communities after the pandemic began and the Church’s donation to HOPE Community Services helped greatly.
“When we have opportunities to get so much food at once, it makes us feel better because we know that we’ll never have to turn anyone away,” Ritz said.
That kind of security only happens with the donations offered up by groups like the Church.
“The food that we get here at Hope Community Services is largely purchased by us … but that’s really not enough to be able to sustain the amount of food that’s needed out in the community,” Ritz said. “So we really rely on houses of worship, we rely on our friends, we rely on individuals in the community to be able to donate food and to be able to support us.”