It can begin with a sandwich

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NEW YORK (BP) —  It's a cold, rainy Saturday in New York City, and Vaughn McLamb ladles up steaming cups of chicken soup for the homeless, addicts, immigrants and urban poor gathered at Tompkins Square Park on the Lower East Side.

Whether Puerto Rican, Chinese, Eastern European or other ethnic background, they've come for FLIP — a free lunch in the park, a ministry provided by East Seventh Baptist Church and Graffiti Community Ministries. Graffiti Church, as it's commonly known, has been serving the Lower East Side since 1974. At the helm is pastor Taylor Field, a North American Mission Board missionary.

Every weekend, Field and a group from Graffiti Church set up in the park to feed the hungry.

"We believe God has called us to reach out to those who have fallen through the cracks," Field says. Graffiti feeds 10,000 people a year, with assistance from partner churches and NAMB's Domestic Hunger Fund

"We feel like part of the Gospel is reaching out in a physical way, and that's a very big need in our community," Field says. "It's not theoretical, it's not something to argue about. It's something tangible that every person can do and we can all come together on."

Field has seen a lot in the 23 years he's lived on the Lower East Side with his wife Susan and their two sons. He remembers when the park was a tent city filled with homeless people living in makeshift shelters. He remembers when most of the blocks in the neighborhood were lined with abandoned buildings and vacant lots. Now the park is a clean green space and the buildings have been refurbished into high-rent condominiums.

"It's a tale of two cities," Field says. "We have people with six-digit incomes living right next to people who have nothing. They don't even see each other sometimes."

In addition to changes in the neighborhood, Field has seen changes in the individuals who have lived on the streets around Graffiti. One of those individuals is Vaughn McLamb.

"I believe Vaughn is one of those people who is a resurrection story where you see the resurrection power of God in him," Field says. "I think part of the fun of what I do is getting to see these amazing things God does in people's lives."

McLamb's first encounter with Graffiti started with the free lunch in the park more than 10 years ago. At the time, McLamb was on the other side of the table. He was a drug addict and living on the streets.

As a young man, McLamb was able to manage his addiction and hold a steady job. But as he became caught in the cycle of addiction and denial, things got worse and no one wanted to hire him. He shuffled from crack house to crack house and shelter to shelter. Through decades of rough living and bad choices, McLamb knew God wanted something better for him. He carried a worn Bible, which he read during his darkest moments.

"I always wanted to be something useful in God's Kingdom," McLamb says. "But I had too many other gods distracting me."

McLamb kept reading his Bible and God wouldn't let go of him. "I read so much of the Bible that it was filling me and creating in me something that eventually allowed me to pull up out of the sewer. The power of God's Word can't be pushed out of a crack house."

Slowly, McLamb began his crawl out of the sewer and into God's will. That's when he found FLIP.

"It started with the sandwich and the individual giving it to me — like they wanted me to have it," McLamb recalls. "I didn't have to beg, explain myself or apologize for being in line."

That day, McLamb got more than a sandwich to soothe his growling stomach. The volunteers invited him to a Bible study across the street. He took the bologna sandwich and sat through the Bible study.

"It re-ignited that belief in Christ I was trying to stuff down with the failures and the behaviors and the drugs and all the excuses," McLamb recalls.

He started attending church at Graffiti. Week after week, he listened to the sermons and things started to click. "When Taylor asked me if I wanted to take the next step and be baptized, I said yes, let's do it."

That was 10 years ago. "Christ is working in me," McLamb says. "And He is putting distance between being real messed up and not being messed up."

Today McLamb is sober, saved and baptized. And every Saturday he heads up the church's feeding ministry.

"This ministry allows me to work with others and to work with the church," McLamb says. "God has used my past experience and chiseled me into someone who can work certain parts of this ministry.

"It beats lying on that bench in the park saying, 'My life is finished. I have no purpose. I've messed my life up so bad that nothing can be done.'"

In addition to heading up the lunch program, McLamb runs Graffiti Church's clothes closet, oversees the care of the building and leads a Bible study.

"Vaughn is one of the most anointed teachers I've ever seen," Field says. "He prepares well and has a sense of what God is doing in his life and other people's lives."

And it all started with a free lunch.

"When we reach out with a sandwich, it's a way to say we believe in you as a person and we know this is an immediate need you have," Field says. "It's a way of making contact with people and being able to look them in the eye.

"When I see what God has done with Vaughn's life and I see how Vaughn has drawn other people to the Lord, I can say from experience there is no one who is too far gone."

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