This item was produced by a reporter in the Schieffer School of Journalism's Public Affairs Reporting class.
In the lobby of the church, clients arrive by foot, by car and by bus.
A volunteer greets them, makes small talk and exchanges pleasantries. Here they can talk about the weather, the news or their family, and avoid questions that might indicate why they’re there, the questions that are harder to answer. Another volunteer hurries off, survey in hand, to pick out the food this person will eat for the next month.
The volunteer snatches products from the shelf: boxed raisins for the kids’ lunches, canned soup for the woman to take to work, and peanut butter sandwich supplies for the family’s dinner, because this client’s electricity has been turned off for about a week.
Perfecting the art
Williamson has always had a hand in organizing the people in her community. Growing up in Fort Worth, Williamson said she realized at a young age that she had a talent for getting people together.
“I’m a very good organizer, and I was able to do that when I was very young,” Williamson said. “I noticed that if I invited people to do things, I could make whatever it was a lot of fun for them to do -- whether it was drama, or pageants or a Kool-Aid stand or neighborhood baseball games.”
For Williamson, sharing her gift of bringing people together was never a question.
“Sometimes I would be helping other people organize the Cub Scout group, which I had no reason to be helping the Cub Scouts at that time, but I did that. I just really like to do those kinds of things,” she said.
And in all of her projects, she found room for improvement.
After several years as a teacher, she became a stay-at-home mom and was soon drafted into the Parent Teacher Association.
“I became a PTA president, which was something I never aspired to do at all,” she said.
Her PTA was recognized as the outstanding PTA unit in America, creating programs that are still used in Albuquerque public schools today.
Her husband Walton said he couldn’t recall any projects that Judy had ever failed at, citing her success in the initiatives she worked on at their church in Albuquerque as well as the major developments going on now at Arborlawn.
“She’s still working on me, though,” he said with a laugh. “I probably still have a few characteristics that she’s working to improve.”
The two have been together since high school and through extensive further education. Walton attended Stanford University and later earned a master’s and a doctorate in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Judy attended TCU for her undergraduate degree, and then received her master’s from Stanford, a doctorate from UT, and a Master of Divinity from the Brite Divinity School at TCU.
Walton said Judy had encouraged the same enthusiasm for achievement in their children, Jillian and Walton, both of whom have doctorate degrees.
“Both of her parents came out of education; her dad was the superintendant of schools in Arlington, Texas,” Walton said. “I’m sure that’s contributed to her desire to get as much education as she could and encouraging me as well as the kids to get any education that was available to us.”
Walton said he couldn’t explain what made Judy’s influence on people so effective; it just was.
“She just seems to have the ability to see the bigger picture and present it in a way that gets people interested in moving toward that bigger picture,” he said.
Such was the case at the food pantry.
Williamson said she first noticed a need for change when the church began to receive thank-you notes from elementary school students in the ‘Snack Sacks’ program, the church’s weekend meal program for students who receive food assistance from their school.
“The letters said things like, ‘my grandma eats this food too,’ and we began to realize there were adults in our community that were hungry too,” Williamson said.
In response, the church elected to transform and expand its food pantry into a limited emergency food service for the zip codes surrounding it, including the 109.
In its present form, the food bank has been open about a year. The church has always had some form of food bank, Williamson said, but not like this.
As in many of her projects, Williamson saw the potential for people to unite in a special way to help each other. She also saw room for improvement in the quality of services the food pantry provided.
Williamson quickly realized that in order to provide the right kinds of foods for families, the congregation needed to be better educated about nutrition.
“[Members of the church] were filling the food pantry with whatever food they had in their pantry at home, and they were bringing the things they liked to eat,” she said. “They weren’t bad things, but they weren’t the most nutritious.”
Williamson brought in a nutritionist to create a shopping list of nutritious, shelf-stable foods for the congregation to supply. Since then, the nutritional quality of the food has improved significantly, she said.
“I’d like to think that we would be very proud if Jesus came to our door, to say ‘Here, this is for you,’” she said.
Divide and conquer
The Rev. Ben Disney, senior minister at Arborlawn, said Williamson’s gift is her ability to empower the people in the church to find their calling in the ministry.
“People want to do something good,” he said. “Judy helps the volunteers by giving it away to them and not just dictating what needs to be done.”
Williamson, a qualified Myers-Briggs instructor, frequently uses personality evaluation to organize volunteers from the church. In this way she has turned the art of volunteering into a science.
“We apply [Myers-Briggs] to spirituality and spiritual preferences, ways that you feel close to god, based on your personality type. We encourage people to recognize that everyone is unique and different.”
Four years ago Williamson directed church member Hal Smith to become a part of the Stephen Ministers program, a program that ministers to members of the church who are going through a crisis.
“She doesn’t go out and solicit people,” he said. “But when you think you have something to offer, she gets you involved. There’s an interview everyone goes through, and she finds a fit.”
Smith enthusiastically talks about the program, taking great pride in the work he does. Stephen Ministers is just one of dozens of the church’s missions, many of which are staffed through Williamson’s careful sorting.
At the food pantry, Williamson’s attention to personality differences often helps volunteers avoid conflict in distributing food.
“Everyone is for justice, but when we have a chance to demonstrate that, we have a difference in opinion about what social justice is,” Williamson said.
While interviewing food pantry clients, volunteers will ask how the person got to the church. If it’s by bus or foot, they will avoid packing heavy things to make the bags easier to carry. They are also instructed to find out whether the client has a can opener, as many of the foods require one to be opened. Not everyone would think to ask such a thing, but Judy Williamson would, and there are spares in case the client doesn’t have one.
“Some volunteers believe everyone should be treated the same,” she said, “so we have the uniform bags with three breakfasts, three lunches, three dinners and three snacks.”
Others believe everyone needs something unique and different, she said, so a second custom bag was created. The custom bag is filled by the volunteers with products chosen based on the client’s preference, whether they have children, the availability of electricity and refrigeration for food preparation, and how far they have to carry the groceries. Each client receives one of each type of bag.
Williamson said she personally leans toward the idea of individualized needs.
“I know that people blossom when their individual needs are met,” she said. “But we have to manage the food so we don’t run out, and I’m really good at managing the budget.”
Encouraging the heart
For Arborlawn, expanding the food pantry was an obvious decision that aligned with the church’s mission to serve in the community. For Williamson, the decision was one that aligned with her personal mission and made the best use of her talents.
When Arborlawn was first opened in 2005 at 5001 Briarhaven Road, it was a merger between Overton Park and Westcliff United Methodist Churches. The goal was to expand both churches’ service missions in the community.
“Closing two healthy churches to open one larger one was a big risk,” Williamson said.
Forging two spiritual communities together for the sole purpose of serving the community is a risk to say the least, but that’s what Williamson does best. She sees the potential to make any project the best it can be.
“Sometimes people think that things can’t be done, but when they think about them again, they realize they know how to do very good things for other people,” Williamson said. “The question is not whether the staff of a church run a food pantry, it’s can the volunteers, and the answer is yes, they do a very good job.”
Through Williamson’s vision, the food pantry now serves 30 to 50 people per week. Williamson said providing food to their neighbors was the primary goal of the pantry.
“I’m a pastor, and there are a few directives that are really clear,” Williamson said. “I don’t know what kind of soccer parent or swim team parent Jesus would have been, because we don’t have information on that. There are a lot of things that we don’t know how he would go about the things that we do, but some things are really clear; Jesus said ‘feed the people.’”
Rev. Judy Williamson is the Associate Pastor, Evangelism & Hospitality at Arborlawn United Methodist Church. She has a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin, an M.A. from Stanford University, a B.S. from TCU and a Master of Divinity degree from the Brite Divinity School at TCU. She is married to Walton Williamson, the chair of the Engineering Department at TCU, and has two children, Jillian and Walton.