Martin Medellin waved his arms emphatically as he directed a few hundred cars to their proper place to stop in the parking lot of Southside Baptist Church on a recent Thursday.
Medellin, wearing a bright orange T-shirt and an excited smile, watched as around 30 volunteers weaved between cars with goods in hand, and loaded the backseats with two cardboard boxes of food, two gallons of milk, and a pack of bottled water.
A local minister, Medellin has been organizing food distributions for seven years. In talking about the importance of the distribution, he spoke with a sermon’s cadence, pausing with each point as he waited for it to sink in.
“What we take for granted can be so major for somebody,” Medellin said. “Your neighbor could be starving, but you won’t know if you don’t talk to them.”
The event, which distributed boxes to over 377 families, was only one part of a widespread effort by Medellin since 2013 to get food to families in small towns surrounding southern San Antonio. After working with the San Antonio Food Bank for several years to distribute food locally, Medellin quickly built a network of churches and non-profit food distributors that reaches as far as Corpus Christi. Medellin’s church, Refuge Port Ministry, organizes such distributions almost every week at Southside Baptist Church along Loop 1604. It regularly sends shipments of food boxes to nearby churches in need. Because the Covid-19 pandemic has made food harder to access, he says, the need for distribution to smaller towns is greater than ever.
“The way I look at it is like this,” Medellin explained. “If you’re a pastor on the South Side with a small church, I can’t reach those 50 members you’ve got by myself. But if I bless you [with food boxes] we could reach them together. With a lot of the smaller churches I’ll just give them a pallet of about 64 boxes, and boom, they give it out.”
Medellin typically receives one large truckload of “Farmers to Families” food boxes per week from DiMare Fresh, a Houston supplier which provides the boxes via a $24 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant. According to Medellin, he also receives donations of 1,500 gallons of milk from Borden Dairy Products, and various food products from the Children’s Hunger Fund. He estimates these donations supply food to 28 different churches or non-profits in the area, which then distribute the boxes among their congregations or service areas. He has also organized a homebound program for elderly neighbors who can’t bring themselves to distributions.
“When the Lord called me out to these little towns, and I got to hear their stories one on one, the people feel like, ‘Man, we’re always overlooked,’” Medellin said. “It’s like, ‘The big cities get all the blessings, and we get the leftovers.’ So I do my best to try and get to places like Elmendorf, or Sandy Oaks.”
When Medellin talks about the expansive network of churches and non-profits that he has connected to for food distribution, he displays an encyclopedic knowledge of personal details and names of the people he works with. He often names the pastors of individual churches across South Texas, referencing specific conversations and anecdotes related to them. During the recent Southside Baptist Church distribution, he often pointed out drivers he had seen before and talked about their individual financial or medical struggles during the pandemic.
When asked how he was able to build the his network, Medellin gives full credit to “the grace of God.” Though he hadn’t grown up in a religious environment, he developed a newfound commitment to religious service in 2000 after he was hospitalizaed for a near-ruptured pancreas.
“Twelve hours after [being taken to the hospital], the doctors were telling my wife I was going to die that night,” he said. “You tend to try and get right with God when they tell you you’re going to die.”
Despite the odds, Medellin woke up the next morning and was released from the hospital two weeks later.
“I was in a wheelchair for nine months, and they told me I wouldn’t walk again,” Medellin said. “But I’m walking today.”
After the incident, Medellin gradually became involved in ministry over the next decade through men’s bible studies at a local church. He began leading the studies, eventually gaining more members and slowly building connections. When Medellin noticed a need for a women’s bible study, his wife Maria began leading one as well. Then, when the Medellins noticed that some parents didn’t have babysitters to watch their kids during the studies, they decided to start a children’s church out of their own home. Finally, Medellin spoke with his pastor and became ordained, officially starting Refuge Port Ministries in 2013.
When reflecting on the breadth of his ministry Medellin can’t seem to believe it himself. “I never in my life thought I would be talking with representatives, or mayors, or chiefs of police,” Medellin said. “My prayer has always been to be blessed so that I can bless others.”
Looking out on the crowd of volunteers coming together to distribute food at Southside Baptist Church, Medellin still seemed in awe at the amount of people coming together to serve the community.
“Just to see everyone come together like this is such a blessing,” Medellin said. “Such a blessing.”
Benjamin Gonzalez was recently a reporting intern at the Heron. He graduated from Trinity University with a bachelor of arts degree in anthropology, and can be reached at @BennyCruzG on Twitter.