Saddleback Church is used to generating numbers of biblical proportions: 20,000 people attend its weekend services; each month Pastor Rick Warren sells about 1 million copies of his book “The Purpose Driven Life,” and more than 350,000 pastors from 120 countries have been trained in the Saddleback way.
But even for one of the country’s largest churches, Saddleback’s latest venture is ambitious: It has been feeding Orange County’s estimated 35,000 homeless people three meals a day for 40 days.
The charity drive, now in its final week, has distributed more than 800 tons of food to 50 poverty relief agencies and 40 motels with the help of 9,200 volunteers, according to church statistics.
“It’s incredible to see,” said Tobi Aclaro, development coordinator of Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County, which joined Lake Forest-based Saddleback in the effort. “It’s amazing to think about the potential to achieve things by just one church.”
On a recent chilly night at the Santa Ana Civic Center, four families from Saddleback handed out 15-pound bags of groceries to 120 people in need. As the homeless lined up, Kathy Bergerson, a stay-at-home mother from Rancho Santa Margarita, walked through the crowd, saying hello and asking if anyone needed a prayer. It was her first time feeding the homeless.
“It was a little out of my comfort zone,” Bergerson said afterward. “But they just wanted a handshake, a hello and maybe a prayer. I could do more of this.”
Ronald James Cook, who has been out of work for seven months, said he appreciated the food.
“This means I’m going to eat,” he said between draws on a cigarette.
“This gives Christianity some credibility. There’s a lot of people out here who could use the help,” he said.
The food drive is the second of three 40-day campaigns launched by Saddleback to deepen the faith of Christians and attract converts.
The first was “40 Days of Purpose,” which began two years ago when “The Purpose Driven Life” hit the bookshelves. It drew participation from tens of thousands of churches worldwide.
The book -- and accompanying campaign -- laid out a step-by-step, 40-day plan to discover God’s purpose for one’s life.
The goal is to get participants all the way around a figurative baseball diamond, with each base representing a deeper commitment to the Christian life. “40 Days of Community,” the second campaign now taking place at Saddleback and 700 other U.S. churches, is an attempt to get churchgoers to take action.
In the month before the campaign started, congregants were encouraged to join a small Bible study group and then volunteer together for the food drive. At Saddleback, the result has been 1,300 new groups and a total of 9,200 volunteers.
“There are two objectives,” Warren said. “To deepen the sense of community within our church, and to reach out in love to the community around our church.”
To collect the food, Saddleback sent 3,600 volunteers to 70 Orange County supermarkets, where they handed shopping lists to willing customers.
“Most people were very receptive,” said Brian Harper, a Saddleback pastor who helped coordinate the food drive. “Many came out with more groceries for the needy than for themselves.”
Church officials estimate more than $1 million worth of food was purchased.
Another team of volunteers packed the food into 15-pound bags at the Second Harvest facility in Orange.
And a third set of volunteers delivered the food to poverty-relief agencies, families living in motels and the homeless in places such as the Civic Center.
Along with the groceries, the Saddleback team delivered 22,000 copies of the New Testament and “The Purpose Driven Life” in English and Spanish.
Saddleback’s third campaign, called “40 Days of Peace,” is scheduled to begin within two years. Its focus will be on sending out missionaries across the nation and abroad.
Before “40 Days of Community,” many in the affluent church had never worked with the homeless.
“So it’s a big deal for them,” said Barbara Hayes, a Saddleback food drive coordinator. After their initial trepidation, “many people have come back to help again.”
Saddleback officials said the volunteer efforts won’t end this week with the campaign.
Many members of the 3,000 study groups have indicated they will continue helping the needy.
“There’s an awareness now of what needs to be done,” Hayes said. “The groups can’t wait to go out and do it on their own.”