Every urban community has its own set of challenges.
For Washington, D. C., food insecurity is one of the major issues facing the lower-class population. Large sections of the city are considered food deserts, reflecting a deep socio-economic and ethnic disparity hiding just behind the attractive veneer of the National Mall and surrounding landmarks.
This is a deep concern. And while it may be tempting to see it as a hopeless scenario, there are those who have taken it upon themselves to address the issue of food insecurity in Washington, D.C. These generous and dedicated individuals are truly impacting their own city through their volunteer work and creative thinking. We are proud to count TBC alumnus Tyler Hendon among them.
Tyler Hendon is originally from Gadsden, Alabama.
He first heard about TBC through alumni JJ & Melissa Alderman when he spent some weeks volunteering at in their ministry in Togo, West Africa. While in Togo, he also connected with alumniRyan Cosson, Brandon Willis, and Tyler McNulty. When it came time to go to college, Tyler decided to study Missions at TBC!
After graduating in 2014, Tyler spent a several years serving in ministry (including youth ministry back home in Alabama) before getting involved with City Service Mission (CSM) full time. CSM is a non-profit organization which got its start in Los Angeles in the early 80s when Pastor Ridge Burns noticed a disconnect between his suburban church and the inner city. This ministry has grown and expanded into what it is today: an organization that provides opportunities for youth and adults to engage in short-term mission trips in urban US settings.
Tyler Hendon is currently the city director for CSM in Washington, D.C., though he has also spent a some years serving with CSM in San Francisco and New York City.
Tyler likes to say that he “gets paid to volunteer”.
His day-to-day responsibilities vary depending on the season. While spring break and the summer months tend to be his busy season in terms of hosting groups, the rest of the year he is serving at any of the dozens of partner organizations and ministries in the area. He also travels to connect with supporters and to present CSM to new groups, organizations, and individuals who are interested in getting involved.
Some of the mission groups who join CSM in D.C. have been doing so on a recurring basis for over a decade. This means that the group leaders as well as the participants, are able to build personal and emotional connections with the established organizations which serve the D.C. community. The common objective among these organizations is to address food insecurity, or what is commonly referred to as “food deserts”.
“There are two sections of D.C. (Ward 7 and Ward 8) that don’t have easy access to produce and grocery stores. Together, they represent approximately 170K people with only 4 grocery stores. Ward 8 specifically has 77,756 people and only one grocery store. In comparison, another area of D.C. has approximately 80-82K residents, and they have access to 12 grocery stores. Not only is there an economic disparity, but when you dig into it, there is also a demographic and racial disparity.”
This is one of the main issues he addresses with volunteer groups. Tyler says that an important part of his job is to help students think through how they, as believers, should engage with the world around them.
“I present the facts and tell them, ‘This is a real problem and here are some organizations that we work with who are working to provide food to these communities who don’t have the same access to these resources. We are going to jump in and help with them.’”
Additionally, he asks the students some pointed questions:
“What do you think the gospel calls us to do when we see people without access to food when others have very easy access to food? How do we reconcile this? Should we reconcile it?’”
Most organized trips run Sunday through Friday.
Tyler starts the week with what he calls a “theology talk” on Sunday. On Monday, he leads the group on a prayer walk of the city. Starting in the northwest corner, they make their way through the main sections of the city, ending in the southeast corner. The goal is to give them a better perspective of the cultural diversity and socioeconomic makeup of the city.
“Most people think of D.C. as the Whitehouse, the Capital Building, and the National Mall. But that is just a tiny 3-mile stretch. There is an entire thriving city that functions independently of all of that!”
During the prayer walk, he brings up the relevant issues of each location in a reflective and prayerful way, prompting the students to pray over specific situations or people. His goal is to present city honestly, discussing the challenges and the brokenness that is actually happening in real time. This sets the tone for the rest of the week as they begin to connect with other individuals who are working to make a difference.
The remaining days of the trip, Tyler takes the groups to meet and serve with the organizations who are in the trenches, wrestling through these issues with hurting people on a day-to-day basis. Many of them have been doing so for decades. He encourages the visiting groups to engage in conversation with everyone: the local volunteers as well as the people seeking assistance. This interaction gives much better perspective and understanding of the people who live and work in the food deserts, how it affects their lives, and how believers can show compassion and love in a respectful way.
CSM partners with various other organizations in the area in order to be as effective as possible with the resources available.
One of Tyler’s personal favorite partner organizations is a large urban farm in his own neighborhood of Brookland.
“…it has some monasteries and a nun convent, and there is a Franciscan Monastery Garden Guild which runs a 2-acre urban garden, all volunteer run and operated. We go in as a group and help with the weeding, planting, harvesting, or whatever needs to be done. All the produce that is grown is given away for free to be distributed in Ward 7 and Ward 8 which is where the highest density food desert is. (Ward 8 has 77,756 people and only 1 grocery store)”
2020 was one of their highest yield years; they were able to give away over 16K pounds of produce!
Other partner organizations include food banks, soup kitchens, churches that serve meals, and other creative organizations who do their part to alleviate food insecurity.
DC Central Kitchen provides about 4K meals a day by taking up the leftover ingredients from restaurants, bars, conventions, galas, etc. The ingredients are used to create fresh meals to be distributed. Food and Friends is a meal delivery service that assists homebound individuals. CSM also partners with Central Union Mission which has been functioning since 1884, and with local organizations that provide summer and after school programs for students.
More than anything, Tyler and CSM desire to help without hindering the good work already being done.
“We focus on going where we are needed and invited. We don’t go in and try to create our own thing. If there is no room for us we don’t barge in, but if providing a group is helpful, we jump in feet first!”
The need for this sensitivity stems from the fact that DC has changed dramatically over the past 15 years. A steady influx of the younger demographic has sparked interest from those who genuinely desire to help. But devoid of context, even good intentions can cause more harm than good.
“There is a tension between the D.C. of the past and the gentrified D.C. There are lots of middle-class, college age, singles and couples moving in because there are so many internships. So, in some cases, newcomers with a zeal to help are sort of stampeding over people, churches, and organizations that are already well established and were doing amazing work well before anyone cared to move to D.C.!”
In a similar manner, Tyler warns that visiting mission groups can sometimes bring with them a distorted view of the role they play during their week-long service trip.
Working hard to fight the “us” and “them” mentality, Tyler hopes that the students will realize their commonalities with the residents of D.C. and learn from those who are working hard to make it a better place.
“Unfortunately, sometimes, mission groups have this mindset of, ‘Oh, this city is evil and sinful, let’s go save the city!’ No. It’s not like that. Your group is not going to save the city, but I can introduce you to people who you can learn from, people who have been a part of D.C. history for a long time and care deeply for it and are doing amazing work.”
Seeing this challenge as an opportunity to improve, Tyler has developed a goal for the next few years.
“I want to make better partnerships with churches – especially historically grounded churches and black churches. After all, DC was the first predominantly black city in the US! Many of the church groups we get are from rural areas that are predominantly white. I want to introduce them to faithful Christians who have been working and living in the city, in the federal government, and have done great work! Some of them are older now and need more help. But they’re still active in their community and area of influence.”
The main takeaway that Tyler hopes students will remember is the fact that the brokenness they see in a big city like D.C. is magnified because there are so many people. But the same things are happening in the students’ own hometowns.
“Someone is struggling to find food, or to pay rent. Where there are people there is brokenness because we are all broken, sinful people!”
Tyler Hendon is married to Emily and has been working with CSM since 2016. He has been the CSM City Director in DC since 2018.
To learn more about CSM, please visit csm.org