Methodist BBQ Ministry Served 3,400 Meals to 2019 Disaster Victims
By Lindsay Peyton
There’s a whole new type of ministry at Montgomery UMC – one focused on a barbecue pit. The MUMC Cookers is an outreach program, which serves meals to those in need in Conroe and also provides disaster relief throughout the state. Volunteers learn tips and tricks about barbecue, as they help others.
On Steve Freeman’s commute from his home in Montgomery, Texas to his job in the oil and gas industry in Houston, he prayed for an answer. He wanted to combine his passion for barbecue and his devotion to church -- but he wasn’t sure exactly how.
“I can’t do this and work,” he thought.
When he arrived at the office that day, the vice president of the company asked if he had ever considered taking an early retirement. It felt like a Godsend, the literal answer to Freeman’s prayers.
“You can’t say no to that,” Freeman recalled. “I called Pastor David up and said, ‘We’re starting a barbecue ministry.’”
David Lindwall, senior pastor at Montgomery UMC, had already asked Freeman to cook at a number of church events and knew that Freeman was a force behind the grill.
Lindwall took Freeman’s proposal for the ministry, which later became known as the MUMC Cookers, seriously. “He had a vision for what it could be,” the pastor said. “I embraced it.”
After all, he explained, Freeman has many talents, but cooking is his specialty. “I knew Steve, and I knew the passion he has,” Lindwall said. “The kinds of things he wanted to do would be incredible. Then, the opportunities for ministry came before him.”
Freeman basically has barbecue in his blood. His uncle J.D. Stanley owned Stanley’s Famous Pit Bar-B-Q in Tyler and made a big impression on his nephew.
“We’d go up and see him, and I still remember opening that door and the smell hitting me,” Freeman said. “He’d let me go back, and the pit boss was really patient with me. He made me feel like I was helping.”
That’s where Freeman learned his first rules of barbecue, including “it’s not done until it’s done.”
As an adult, barbecue became a way to connect with others – and sometimes even to open up a conversation with a stranger. “The greatest icebreaker is barbecue,” Freeman said. “You mention barbecue, and all of the sudden, you’ve got friends.”
Operation BBQ Relief was part of the inspiration for Freeman’s ministry. The nonprofit started in Missouri to feed meals to families displaced by tornadoes and continued to help those left in need in the wake of natural disasters in cities across the U.S.
Freeman and Montgomery UMC followed the organization’s example, when the Tax Day Floods came to Houston, and church volunteers prepared 150 meals for families displaced by the rains.
They wanted to do more, and, around the same time, Freeman was offered a large, double -barrel barbecue pit by the owner of a charity that was closing its doors.
The gift, however, came with one condition – that Freeman would start a ministry with it.
“It all kind of lined up,” he recalled.
Freeman told his friend and fellow barbecue aficionado Kenny Maggard about his idea for the ministry.
At first, Maggard admitted to being confused. “How is a pulpit going to fit on a barbecue pit?” he asked.
“I just couldn’t understand it, but Steve had a vision,” Maggard recalled. “And Steve kept on explaining it. I told him, ‘Whatever I can do to help you, I will.’”
Freeman’s concept was to offer traditional Texas barbecue as a form of quick and meaningful disaster relief. Meals delivered to displaced families would feature dishes perfected over the pit for hours, lovingly cooked and served up to show support and inspire hope.
To prepare for disasters, the MUMC Cookers would train by barbecuing for area charities – focusing on Lone Star Veteran’s Association, Conroe House of Prayer and God’s Garage.
They also cook for Ride for the Kids, an annual motorcycle ride to benefit the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation.
Volunteers not only have the opportunity to serve but also connect in Christian fellowship. Along the way, they gain skills on the grill.
“The thing is that people love barbecue, but a lot of people don’t know how to cook it,” Freeman said. “This is a great way to learn. And it gives a lot of people a chance to serve.”
When tornadoes hit Canton in 2017, the MUMC Cookers were ready to go. They drove 200 pulled pork lunches to affected individuals. Then, when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston a few months later, the volunteers sprang into action again.
“Our group couldn’t get into boats, but we could make sandwiches,” Freeman said.
They served about 9,000 meals in only three weeks. Donations poured in from all over the country to keep food coming. “It was very poignant,” Freeman said. “I felt God-led.”
The MUMC Cookers are back in training mode now, serving their charity clients and preparing for other natural disasters.
“It’s just food but it’s food people can count on,” Freeman said. “And it means a lot to them that it’s barbecue.”
This year, the MUMC Cookers have served 3,400 meals, and Freeman draws on the help of 89 regular volunteers. He estimates that there have been 255 opportunities for service.
The barbecuing -- and preparing of meals -- all happens at Montgomery UMC’s certified kitchen. Freeman became a certified food handler.
He strives to offer consistently good-tasting food. “The first sandwich is going to taste just like the 800th,” he said.
Freeman offers new cookers a brisket 101 class. “If I can teach people how to cook briskets, that’s something they can take back home, and become king or queen of their neighborhood,” he said.
Then participants practice a lot during the year – more than at-home chef ever would, Freeman added.
“The only way you can learn to barbecue is to barbecue,” he said. “The more you do it, the better you get.”
For those who just want to help, they can also assemble sandwiches and boxed lunches – or volunteer to serve up the meals.
In addition, Susan Levine serves as the head baker for the MUMC Cookers, leading production desserts at the church. “At some point, we decided it would be a good idea to have a little sweet at the end of the meal,” she said.
Now, Levine said, the bakers also enjoy their own fellowship, joining for lunch together as cakes cool. There are also home bakers who add to the donations.
“Steve’s put so much effort into this,” she said. “We’re just glad to get to go on this ride with him.”
Training BBQ Chefs
Mike Fulton is one of the pit masters for MUMC Cookers and enjoys passing on his skills to new barbecue chefs. “I knew some barbecue stuff when I started, but now I’ve learned a lot,” he said. “When new people come in, we show them what to do. As they grow with their skills, it’s fun to watch.”
In addition to cooking, Fulton enjoys meeting others in the church and the community through barbecue. “I’ve met a lot of people I would have never met at church otherwise,” he said. “It’s all about knowing you’re helping people – and being around the people I like.”
When going on outreach trips, Fulton added, volunteers are able to interact directly with the individuals they are serving. “You get a whole different perspective on life,” he said.
Maggard has remained Freeman’s righthand man, driving up from his home in Katy to be a part of the MUMC Cookers. “The volunteers we have, they are serious and they are dedicated,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to be around each and every one of them. I’m blessed to be a part of that group.”
Maggard said that the church is buzzing with activity when it’s time to barbecue – and he’s proud of his friend for leading the way with his ministry. “He knew there was a need and he went after it,” Maggard said. “It’s just awe-inspiring.”
Lindwall said that Freeman’s original vision for MUMC Cookers really took off. They continue to prepare food for church events, provide outreach opportunities for congregation members and offer simple fellowship.
“Folks are coming together for this, and as they do, there’s a fellowship that comes about,” Lindwall said. “It’s a very significant, well-led, well-run ministry at UMC Montgomery.”
He also personally enjoys a waft of barbecue sometimes when he’s at work in the church.
“Food brings us together,” he said. “Food connects us to others. This is a way to reach others. If the Cookers are cooking, it’s a joyful thing.”
Freeman wants others to know about MUMC Cookers. “If there’s a tornado or flood in their neighborhood, they can contact us and we will feed them,” he said.
He also encourages other churches to consider getting in the spirit of barbecue ministry. In fact, MUMC Cookers have already gifted their original double pit, which they have since outgrown, to UMC Frankston in East Texas with the same condition that they start a cooking ministry.
Eddie Milham, who teaches adult Sunday school at UMC Frankston, used to play football with Freeman. “God has brought us to look at each other now, not across a huddle, but across a barbecue pit,” he said.
The church recently fired up its new pit to practice cooking a variety of meats. “Steve has created a model, and right now we’re the reflection of that initial ministry,” Milham said. “We’re just getting started.”
Freeman, who also heads Sunday school at UMC Montgomery, has a few barbecue related sermons and Bible stories he likes to share with others. One of his favorites is from Noah’s ark.
Once Noah anchors on dry land, he builds an altar and makes a sacrifice. “The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma,” the Bible states.
“That’s proof that God loves barbecue,” Freeman said with a smile. “God loves that Noah did it with a sincere and full heart of thanks. That’s what we’re doing too. We’re doing something for somebody else – all to glorify God.”
Follow the group on Facebook at www.facebook.com/MUMCCookers1.