Woman Of Faith

 “Why, God? Why would you send me here?”

Peggy Kirkpatrick used to spend a lot of time asking God to place her where she could use her talents to serve him. It surprised her when she felt directed to The Food Bank for Central & Northeast Missouri instead of a Christian organization, but the job opportunity matched her growing desire to help feed the poor. So, she reasoned, it made sense.

Then she arrived in 1992 and discovered the food bank was on the verge of closing. The more she learned about the dismal finances and exhausted support, the more she questioned why God had taken her willingness to serve him and put her in charge of such a hopeless mess.

Today, Kirkpatrick — who recently left her position as executive director of the food bank to go into full-time Christian ministry — is not nearly as puzzled as she was 22 years ago.

“I have a lot more insight now than I did then,” she says. “God calls Christians to be a light and salt in a dark and dying world. So he doesn’t send us someplace where there’s already light. He puts us strategically in places of darkness so his light can shine through us to make that dark place light.”

The light Kirkpatrick brought to the food bank shines far and wide. When she left in December, The Food Bank for Central & Northeast Missouri was one of the top-performing food banks in the nation.

“Her level of commitment to what she does and what she believes has been contagious,” says Dave Machens, a former food bank board member. “People see how devoted she is to her cause — whether that’s her faith, her ministry, her organization … pick whatever — people see her level of commitment and want to emulate that.”

“She was one who talked about the calling God had put on her life,” says Tim Rich, who spent seven years working for Kirkpatrick at the food bank before becoming executive director of Heart of Missouri United Way. “She talked about the faith you have to have to get through and to do the things we needed to do with very few resources. We all have these times where we get a little discouraged, but she was always one who came back to, ‘If we believe it can be done, it can be done. God will help us do it.’ ”

For Kirkpatrick, answering yes to God’s calling is always the first step. She says God puts everyone here for a purpose, and he will reveal that purpose if asked.

“But we can’t just casually say, ‘What do you want me to do?’ ” she says. “You have to be really serious about it: ‘God, what’s my ministry on this Earth? What have you called me to do? How can I serve you?’ ”

Those were the questions Kirkpatrick had been asking God before she came to the food bank. She’d spent 20 years as a computer programmer and was feeling more and more dissatisfied. Every morning on the way to work, she’d pass homeless people searching for food and shelter in dumpsters, but for 7½ years, the scene hardly bothered her. Then one morning, she finally saw, and felt, the misery of her neighbors. She offered up a prayer: “God, this is wrong. You need to do something, or you need to send somebody to do something.”

“The very next thought that came into my mind was: ‘What about you, Peggy? Why don’t you do something?’ I knew that thought came from God,” she says.

Kirkpatrick interrupts her own story to acknowledge that some might think her strange for believing God talks to people, but to her — someone who believes in God and who believes he wants people to know the purposes he has for their lives — it seems only reasonable.

“God will tell us what to do, but it’s usually in our spirit,” she says. “You know things — the world would say intuitively, but it’s not intuitively. It’s a knowing that God’s leading you.”

That knowing and sense of calling have helped Kirkpatrick brave many tough times at the food bank. One of the most memorable was the Great Flood of 1993, when 27 counties in the food bank’s service area were declared disaster areas. At one point near the start of the flooding, the food bank had no food on hand and only $315 in the bank. Through tears, Kirkpatrick recalls how she turned to God and how he responded.

“I closed my office door, I got down on my knees, and I said, ‘What do you want me to do? I don’t know what to do!’ ” she says. “And he said, ‘Feed my sheep. Feed ‘em.’ And I’m going, ‘OK, swell. How do I do that?’ ”

Part of the answer Kirkpatrick says God gave her was to stop charging the food bank’s distribution agencies for the food — even though that income made up 46 percent of the food bank’s budget.

“The staff said, ‘You’re crazy. You’re going to bankrupt the food bank,’ ” she recalls, “and I said, ‘God won’t do that. He won’t let us go bankrupt.’ This is how great our God is — we went from operating out of one empty warehouse to operating out of four warehouses, all donated. We went from $315 in the bank to receiving and spending more than $100,000. We went from distributing 2.8 million pounds of product the previous year to receiving more than 2 million pounds of food in a matter of six weeks.”

The resolve Kirkpatrick showed in carrying out the plan she believed God had given her was something Rich would come to admire in her.

“She’s a woman with a lot of passion; I think everyone would agree to that,” he says. “When she knows something is right, she’s not going to waver. Once she knows something needs to be done, she will find a way to get it done, and she doesn’t move until it is done.”

Kirkpatrick has always acknowledged God’s help at the food bank. In public talks and interviews, she has often said, “The food bank stands as a testimony to the providence of God and the goodness of people.” She takes that same attitude into board meetings, where she has never hesitated to mention God and her dependence on him.

“There were times when we were working on budgets, and the budget didn’t quite balance out,” Rich says. “And there would be a line item in there and someone would say, ‘Well, what’s that?’ And she’d say, ‘That’s where God does something.’ And it worked out! That’s hard for a board of directors that is not necessarily faith-based; that’s a stretch, but she always pushed those limits and pushed people to trust God.”

Machens admits he didn’t always appreciate that pushing.

“I would usually come back and say, ‘But God doesn’t write checks,’ ” he says. “It took me a few years of being able to watch what happened, and I can’t tell you whether it’s because of Peggy or because of the mission of the organization or because of the donor base, but we always managed to come up with what we needed.”

Kirkpatrick says it wasn’t always easy for her to trust God to provide, either, but God developed her own faith as she has served at the food bank.

“I came to this organization with little faith, and I believe — and I hope this is true — that I’m leaving it with great faith,” she says. “Because I’ve seen —” she chokes up, takes a moment to collect herself and then whispers, “I’ve seen God’s hand every step of the way.”

As much as Kirkpatrick appreciated the opportunity to serve God and people at the food bank, she longed to be rid of one constraint: “I’ve never really had the freedom to preach Jesus,” she says.

That restriction finally proven too confining. At the beginning of last year, Kirkpatrick once again felt God stirring her to a new work.

“There’s something bigger, something else,” she says. “I’ve spent 22 years helping people cope with poverty, and what’s getting bigger and bigger and bigger in me is —” again, she chokes up and takes a deep breath.

“Jesus is the only way to get out of poverty,” she concludes, “and I want to help people get out of poverty.

“So I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do next, other than, after 22 years, I know God’s got it.”