The Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Brooks provides meals to local children in Birmingham, Alabama. (Photo Source: Submitted)The Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Brooks provides meals to local children in Birmingham, Alabama. (Photo Source: Submitted)

Each day, the Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Brooks leaves home, puts on his gloves, secures his face covering, then says a prayer that he will return back safely and in good health.

The pastor of Greater Saint John Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, knows that every trip outside – where he will encounter dozens of people – is a risk. Yet he calls it a risk worth taking to deliver help to his neighbors across the city who need it the most.

“Every time I leave out the house, I pray that the Lord would return me safely,” Brooks said. “To some extent I’m a bit nervous, and yet there’s a need to do the Lord’s work.”

Brooks leads a food distribution program that has become a lifeline for hundreds of people in Birmingham since the beginning of the recent coronavirus, or COVID-19, pandemic began. Those seeking help include the homeless and city residents, from the youngest to the most elderly.

The program has distributed more than 2,000 meals and food boxes. Distributions are made from Brooks’ church and in downtown parks. Some meals are even delivered to the homes of seniors who are shut in.

“I’ve had people cry who said, ‘I don’t know what we would do if we didn’t have this,’” Brooks said. “They’ve been using us as a support, and we don’t mind.”

Brooks said he was touched to see some children come for the meals, only to return to ask for more to give to other children in the neighborhood.

Brooks is also co-chair of the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement’s Community Advisory Board at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB.

“Dr. Brooks’ latest call to action is not surprising to any of us who work with him. He is the epitome of humility and service,” said Claudia Hardy, director of Community Outreach at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center. “As a leader on our advisory board, Dr. Brooks is a trusted partner who helps us better understand the needs of the communities we are seeking to reach and serve. I don’t believe the word ‘no’ is even in his vocabulary, as he’s always available when called upon.”

Brooks said his service on the advisory board has given him additional tools to assist his constituents.

“It has helped me as a pastor,” he said regarding his newfound skills in cancer awareness, education and prevention. “Now I know what questions to ask, I know the medical terms, and I’m able to be a positive influencer because I am now educated.”

At the church, Brooks describes the current food distribution as a blend of both his call to ministry and his obligation to community service.

He and his team were preparing to open the food bank later this year, but the pandemic necessitated a more rapid response that resulted in a new team of 35 volunteers. The need was too great to wait, Brooks explained.

“We had to react to a community that was already challenged,” he said. “It really caught us off guard in that we didn’t have the chance to discuss what this would look like. COVID-19 sped us up and gave us that extra adrenaline and that extra push.”

Nevertheless, the team sprung to action. Brooks’ service area includes the neighborhoods of southwest Birmingham in addition to the parks downtown.

Through it all, Brooks has balanced congregational care, feeding seniors and children and providing for his own family, while staying mentally focused and healthy.

“I have not had a day off since March 16,” Brooks said with a laugh. “God has blessed me and my family, so it’s hard for me to sit back and not see other people blessed. It gives me energy to know that I am doing the Lord’s work in this community. I don’t go to sleep until I feel they are being taken care of.”

This story originally ran in the May 2020 issue of Community Connections, the monthly newsletter of the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB.