Here's Becky Mabry's column on Nathan Montgomery

Here's Becky Mabry's column on Nathan Montgomery

(This column originally appeared on June 21, 2009.)

Would you go to work today if you knew you weren´t going to get paid for it? What about the next day? Next week?

Maybe that´s the difference between a job and a calling. Most of us work for money. Then there´s Nathan Montgomery, who shows up whether the paycheck comes in or not.

He is a missionary. Not the kind who lives in a remote outpost in foreign lands, but one who ministers from a contemporary-looking warehouse sitting along Interstate 74 in the Champaign area called Dobbins Downs.

Every Wednesday, he helps distribute free canned vegetables and fruits and fresh produce and cheese and butter to about 250 families in Champaign County. Salt and Light Ministries also gives free clothing and free furniture, household goods and appliances. Free. That´s right.

The 250 families each week who need food is up from about 170 a week last year at this time. And that´s the rub. Everyone´s talking about how the downturn in the economy is hurting the social service agencies. More clients – fewer cash donations. This paper´s downed a forest of trees writing about them and will continue to do so.

But what we often don´t report is that people like Montgomery, who has the impressive title executive director of Salt and Light Ministries, hasn´t been paid since early April.

The food and clothes are still going out the door. The power´s on, and the water bill´s paid, but this married father of four is going without.

Nathan is a good-looking guy of 31. He grew up in the Garden Hills neighborhood and graduated from Centennial High School. And he´s no superman. He fights back emotions as he talks about his "rough patch." He and his wife, Jenny, did have savings, but that´s gone. Their house in Philo has a mortgage, light bill, insurance bill and so on; the kids are 13 to 4 years old, and they have needs, not to mention wants. One just had a birthday.

"That´s what gets to me," he said. He took a pay cut when he left Alloy Casting five years ago to work at Salt and Light. He´d also worked construction.

"At times McDonald´s looks good," he smiles. "You know there you´re going to get paid every Friday."

But he´s not quitting. He waves a Menard´s job application. He´s applying to work from 4:30 to 9 a.m.

"It doesn´t take away from here and doesn´t take away from home," he said.

"Maybe some sleep," he added, almost with a laugh.

How come he´s not resentful?

"You know, that´s the faith side of it," he said. "Because I feel so strongly that I´m doing what I´m supposed to be doing, I know it´s going to be taken care of. That doesn´t mean, by no means, that there aren´t days when I´m like, Why? Why do we have to struggle? But that´s my faith journey and my wife´s too. We definitely have our down days. We have our days when she´s emotional and I´m emotional, and we´re questioning. I´m not going to pretend it´s not hard.

"But this is where I´m supposed to be."

"This" is the former Canteen warehouse on Anthony Drive. So far this year, Salt and Light has seen more than 5,000 visits from families. Nathan said most people aren´t aware of the tremendous need. There are about 30,000 people in the county living at or below the poverty level.

"Out of 102 counties in Illinois, only nine have a higher poverty rate than Champaign County," he said.

Salt and Light opened in 2003, the mission of local men John Prince, Mike Roberts and Greg Pennington. Its name comes from Matthew 5:13-16, in which Jesus tells his disciples to be like the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

Nathan, the ministry´s first and only director, quickly learned the job is more than just handing out canned tomatoes and winter coats. Just a few weeks ago, a client faced surgery and had no family to accompany him. He asked if Nathan would go to the hospital and check him out. Nathan went before the surgery to spend time with the man and reassure him. He took him home, stopping by a drugstore to get a prescription filled, and made sure he was settled into his apartment.

They talked about hockey, the man´s former job and childhood but very little about spiritual matters. Yet, as Nathan left, the man asked, "Where can I go to worship God?"

After feeling so buried in his own financial problems, it reminded him that he had been led to this mission to help the poor.

"My wife and I said, this is not a job," he said. "This is really more who we are.

"I believe this is where I´m supposed to be."

Rebecca Mabry is features editor at The News-Gazette. E-mail her at rmabry<@>news-gazette.com or follow her at twitter.com/giddyup849

By the numbers

* Salt and Light Ministries, 355-5654; 1512 W. Anthony Drive, C

* 40,000 visitors a year

* Annual budget $125,000, all donated

* Currently $22,000 in arrears.

* 425 donors at $25 a month will cover the budget

* 150 families so far this year have been through Financial Literacy program

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