Not to be confused with the definition - and pronunciation - that means "wide open," this biblical use and associated pronunciation of "agape" has Greek origins and is found in the New Testament. It means the unconditional love of God for all human beings and the reciprocal love of humans for God the Father.
The dictionary definition also rings true. The Agape Center, in the Cambria neighborhood of Christiansburg, is wide open.
"We're the only food pantry that serves the entire New River Valley," Agape Center's director, Kim Bowman, explains. At the beginning of our conversation, she was busy putting together backpacks for the area's homeless, each stuffed with 32 survival and food items. "They better all fit," she laughs, "I might need two backpacks!" The gesture is in response to a trending uptick in the area's homelessness.
Bowman has a background in outreach ministry working with homeless populations, detention homes, soup kitchens, nursing homes and prisons for the last 25 years. "That is my heart," she relates, "to serve disenfranchised people and bring them hope. Because there is hope and a better future."
According to the website, Agape is “a multi-church, mentorship-based outreach center focused on serving people in the New River Valley when they need a hand up.”
In the Beginning
The organization started with two women who offered food and clothing out of their garage, utilizing their local church for sponsorship. Eventually the service grew to include several church's financial support and volunteerism. The flagship center is in Moneta, outside Roanoke, after which the other three centers, in Vinton, Lynchburg and the New River Valley, are modeled. At all four locations, thanks to member businesses and member churches and a 100% un-paid staff, everything is given away free of charge. "We are a place of community and a place of neighborly love,â€ she adds.
Agape purchased the former Montgomery County Public Schools property less than two years ago. While the main school building is under renovation, operations are run out of an adjacent warehouse. It's a locally iconic, historic property, centrally located on the bus line.
Food donations are coordinated through Feeding Southwest Virginia, a derivative of Feeding America. There are 13-14 grocery store pick-ups per week providing clients with approximately $250 worth of food per visit. Warehouse shelves are stocked with non-perishable items, fresh fruits and vegetables and a section of decorated bakery cakes, cookies and cupcakes. The walls are lined with donated industrial-sized freezers and refrigerators full of meats and dairy products.
There is a separate room full of diapers and a basement-level clothing store. Once renovation is complete, there will also be a furniture store, a tool room and the clothing room will expand to a boutique-like browsing experience.
When guests celebrate a birthday, they get a specially assembled gift basket. The same happens when babies are born. During the holiday season there is an Angel Tree program that provides for 100s of area children and families. Agape also offers a 12-week program entitled "Getting Ahead" that helps people understand poverty and how to transcend out of poverty.
Mentors, Goals and Love
First time visitors need only a valid ID and will be greeted by trained mentors to assess their needs and establish a relationship with Agape services. The food pantry alongside the mentoring component is the core of what the center is all about. Because sometimes the most meaningful service is simply conversation.
"Mentors help with setting and celebrating goals. They hear the tender moments in peoples' lives. If spiritual support is wanted, they offer prayer," Bowman states. "I don't like to do things that leave people where they are. I want to create a ladder. We don't do this just to give a handout, but to lift people up from their situation."
Karen has been an Agape mentor for two years. "I tell people: â€˜When you leave, my goal is that you feel cared for. We want to be good neighbors.' We want everyone to know love and respect and non-judgement. We want to give them hope. There is a community that forms, and it really opens your eyes to what's happening in the New River Valley," Karen explains.
Most clients are working poor, disabled or on a fixed income. Bowman tells the story of someone who came in once. Then he got a job. For Christmas that year, he delivered a car full of gifts and decorations back to the center. "Then a couple of months ago," Bowman continues, "he came back as a client ... it can get heavy if you let it, a Band-Aid on a gaping wound."
Perhaps it's apropos to reference the well-known Bible verse from 1 Corinthians, often read during matrimonial celebrations starting with, "faith, hope and love." While the greatest is love, perhaps to truly experience "agape," one needs to find a wide-open vulnerability to also hope; to find hope in the fact that love goes both ways and tomorrow does not have to be like today.
The bottom line is: â€œYou're welcome here,â€ Karen concludes, â€œwe're glad youâ€™ve come."
Donate or Volunteer:
Open: Every Friday except a 5th Friday in a month, noon-4 p.m. 2nd
and 4th Wednesdays, noon-4 p.m.
Call: 540-251-5646 to schedule an appointment
Text by Nancy S. Moseley
Photos courtesy of Agape and Nancy Moseley