By Lea Rittenhouse | Photos by Andrea Caldwell
On Saturdays, a pleasant scent lingers under the bridge on Valentine Street in downtown Tyler. The smell of crisp turkey bacon, freshly made pancakes and the bold fragrance of steaming hot coffee weaves in and out of the crowd of people gathered for Church Under the Bridge.
Volunteers prepare and serve the food provided by a ministry called Hunger for Love, but there’s something extraordinary about this ministry besides feeding those who may otherwise be left hungry—it was started by a 15-year-old.
Robert E. Lee student Jason Eslicker, now 17, casually started Hunger for Love last year with a couple friends from Brook Hill, where he attended high school at the time.
“I had this crazy idea—what if we went out to Bergfeld Park one Saturday morning with a bunch of breakfast pastries and we handed them out to whoever came over,” he says while recalling the organization’s beginnings. “Homeless, not homeless, it doesn’t really matter. “
On May 28, 2011, Jason and his friends met at Bergfeld Park with a trash bag of donated pastries, anxious to distribute the food to anyone they could, but that day, only one passerby accepted their offer.
The mild response didn’t discourage the group; instead they began to develop the idea. The next time they met at The Square in downtown with a humble bag of pastries, this time, with low expectations based on their last excursion. To their surprise, a group of about 15 people came up to them.
Jason and his friends expanded their event to include a hot breakfast onsite. He says they continued feeding others because they truly wanted to and they enjoyed the people, but at least for him, the motive was shared with selfishness.
“From an outside perspective it looks like we’re mature for our age … and people liked that idea.” Jason says. “People liked us more, and so it really became us-centered.”
But come Christmas, Jason’s motives met reality. They decided to hold a Hunger for Love feast for the homeless downtown on Dec. 23, complete with live Christmas hymns, a hot dinner and clothes for those who were in need.
He spent the day preparing the food at Bethesda health clinic, while volunteers set up tables on The Square for people to gather at, and for the food to be served on.
Previous to the event, Jason’s biggest concern was that the event would fail.
“My biggest concern beforehand was there’s going to be no one there. No one is going to show up. People are going to think we are complete losers,” he says.
They arrived on The Square to find music playing and 150 people in attendance.
“And then I saw it. I saw people enjoying life together. I saw tons of broken hearts working together to create something really beautiful,” Jason describes while smiling. “That was the moment where God just screamed at me, ‘No, Jason. This is more than just about you.’”
In May, Hunger for Love started to meet under the bridge where Church under the Bridge takes place. On any given Saturday morning, there are volunteers cooking and serving food, tables piled with free clothes provided by a group from Faith Community Church called Jesus’ closet, a Bible study, worship and 100-150 people gathered.
“We have volunteers that cook it, volunteers that serve the food, volunteers that lead worship, volunteers that talk at the Bible study, so we’re really community-based,” Jason says. “We want to teach them how to serve and how to serve each other, and also serve alongside them, apposed to just giving out hand outs.”
Travis White, executive director at local non-profit Mission Tyler, has watched their dream grow since the beginning.
“At the beginning I thought ‘this will be great. Maybe it will last for the summer.’ I mean, they’re young students,” he says. “I knew he was pretty driven about things, but they are kids, so it may just last the summer and that will be great.”
Hunger for Love has now existed for a year and a half and functions as a prominent sector of Mission Tyler.
“Mission Tyler is sharpening its focus to four key things in four sections of the community, and one of those four is centered around Hunger for Love and about one- mile radius around the bridge,” Travis says.
The other three areas are centered on partnerships with Higher Heights Baptist Church, North Star Missionary Baptist Church and an area north of Texas College.
Mission Tyler formally came together about five years ago after Travis felt God gave him the vision to see churches more united and working together.
Instead of replacing the church, the heart of Mission Tyler is to unite believers in word, action and heart, to serve as a connection piece for the local church to engage in their community and to be a neutral, common ground for the church to come together and love people. The ultimate goal, though, is to build relationships, serving where needs arise to disciple people into an understanding of Christianity.
“There’s 400 churches in Smith County. What if we all could unite and work together and work toward meeting the common need,” he says. “It’s hard for me to see a believer or a church that truly gets what the love of Christ is without looking around them thinking, ‘How can I not love the people around me?’ God gave us two directives. He said love me with all your heart and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself, and that’s very powerful in it’s simplicity.”
Currently, Mission Tyler educates, equips and empowers almost 40 churches.
George Montalvo, board member of Mission Tyler, volunteers with Hunger for Love on Saturday mornings and says both ministries are centered on outreach and engaging in a mission.
“Living missional is understanding what God’s story is to mankind from the early parts of Genesis and on into Revelation … God weaves his theme of mission throughout the entire scripture.”
George, Travis and Jason share the same mission, which is to eliminate to socioeconomic gap between communities in Tyler.
“Often times you’ll hear about North Tyler, South Tyler, and really, we’re one city with lots of different neighborhoods,” he says while explaining how a lack of mission allows communities to remain disconnected. “What I would like to do is figure out how we can close the loop of North and South Tyler, and East and West Tyler, so that we can really understand what it means to come together as one community.”
By serving, feeding the hungry and embracing those in poverty or who have needs, George believes those serving are able to share life and their values with those in need.
“What Mission Tyler helps do is carry those humanitarian ideas one step further and it’s ultimately all for the glory of God,” he says.
Jason says he doesn’t know what he will be up to come high school graduation, but for now he wants to take it one step at a time and really focus on communicating to young people that they can make a difference.
“Young people, my generation, can make a difference,” he says. “They just need to look in the right place and follow the heart of God.”