Wednesday, October 4, 2023

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Mt. Zion will keep on blessing — until they can’t

LANSING, Ill. (June 29, 2023) – A hint of weariness shows on Betty Burley’s face as she surveys the pallets of food lined up in the Mt. Zion parking lot. Thursday, she smiles, has been a long day.

Burley is accustomed to organizing two “pop-up food pantries” each week, but usually one happens on Wednesday and the other on Thursday. This Thursday, June 29, she has scheduled two pop-ups in order to make up for the cancellation of Wednesday’s pop-up due to the Air Quality Alert. She doesn’t want anyone to miss out on this week’s blessing.

A typical pop-up requires an hour of set-up, two hours of distribution, and an hour of clean-up. Today that time investment will be doubled.

The blessing distribution system

For recipients who drive through the Mt. Zion parking lot, the distribution system seems easy and fast. They are largely unaware of the dozen volunteers involved, each with an assigned role. Volunteers unload the Illinois Partners in Hope truck when it arrives, slice the shrink-wrap off the towering pallets, organize and open hundreds of boxes, and set aside designated amounts for the homeless ministry the church also runs. Burley visits each pallet of food, calculates the quantity of individual items, and writes a number on the side to indicate how many can be given to each car. She assigns one or two volunteers to each pallet, and they will quickly load each car as it drives through with its trunk already popped open.

Today they will serve more than 400 cars.

Betty Burley writes a number on a pallet of Bob Evans Egg Whites, delivered by Illinois Partners in Hope just minutes earlier. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

The line of blessing recipients

The line of cars extends down 177th Street and around the corner. Week after week, people drive through, open their trunks, and receive whatever Illinois Partners in Hope has delivered to Mt. Zion that day. Today’s assortment includes Bob Evans Egg Whites, Philadelphia Cream Cheese, Propel water, Hostess Donettes, and thousands of Lunchables.

Food pop-up recipients — or “Poppers,” as Betty Burley calls them — line up along 177th Street, waiting for volunteers to finish unloading and organizing the delivery from Illinois Partners in Hope. No ID is required for the Mt. Zion pop-ups, and Burley has heard grateful testimonies from Poppers who live in Lansing and surrounding towns, but also Indiana and even Wisconsin. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)
When the truck is unloaded and the pallets are unwrapped, Betty Burley shoots a Facebook Live video introducing some of the volunteers and showing the items that are available for pick-up. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

Mt. Zion has been a conduit of these blessings for three years, ever since the pandemic urged them to meet new needs in new ways.

The overlooked needs

But the tiny church is struggling as well. So focused on meeting others’ needs, they have long overlooked their own. The Mt. Zion Center building — which housed Matthew Bookstore in the 1970s, then Christian Literature Center, then a shop called O-Zone — needs upkeep. The ceiling is drooping. And a post-pandemic decline in membership makes it difficult even to keep the lights on. Pastor Leon, who puts his “heart and soul” into the church’s ministry efforts, has sometimes put his last dollar into the utility bill as well.

For the most part, the ministries of Mt. Zion do not cost money, so they continue indefinitely. The Mt. Zion flock invests what they do have — time, muscle, administrative skills, and a love for community. “Our outreaches are sponsored by donations,” explained Burley, “so that we are able to do community outreach like the food giveaways. That ensures we can continue helping the community, which is at the core of our ministry. Extending a helping hand.”

But food donations won’t pay the mortgage. That comes out of Pastor Leon’s well-worn pockets.

Pastor Leon at one time considered becoming a lawyer because he wanted to help people. Instead he devoted his life to a more hands-on style of ministry. (Photo: Betty Burley)

Burley would love to have more volunteers as well. “If we have more volunteers we could have more outreach giveaways,” she says, again thinking of ways to meet other people’s needs.

Blessed to be a blessing

For now, Mt. Zion Center will continue to transform its parking lot into a blessing distribution zone at least twice a week, receiving pallets and boxes, organizing them thoughtfully, and giving them away to anyone in need.

Mt. Zion Center is located at 2340 177th Street in Lansing, Illinois. The church can accept financial donations online via Zelle to @[email protected], or via checks made payable to UFL Hidden Facts ministry.

Volunteers interested in joining the pop-up pantry team can find more information in the Facebook Group, A volunteer application form is available under the Forms tab of that page:


Melanie Jongsma
Melanie Jongsma
Melanie Jongsma grew up in Lansing, Illinois, and believes The Lansing Journal has an important role to play in building community through trustworthy information.