Elyse Umlauf-Garneau is a Chicago-based freelance writer and former senior editor with REALTOR® Magazine.
Good Neighbor Samuel Thomas, Jr.: Ministry Delivers Food, Love, and Joy
"I had to do more than listen to good sermons..."
November 1, 2009
Thomas has been right on time since 1977. That’s when he founded Quest, a nonprofit that serves the hungry and poor in the Philadelphia suburb of Burlington, N.J. At Tabernacle Baptist Church, where Thomas is a deacon, he and his 110 volunteers provide an array of services to alleviate physical and spiritual pain.
"I’m motivated by the word of God," says Thomas, remembering back to the time he started Quest. He says he was tired of sitting in church and listening to talk about doing charitable acts but seeing little action. "I was teaching the Bible," says Thomas, now a salesperson with Imani Realty & Associates in Willingboro, N.J., "and I realized that I couldn’t keep teaching and be a hypocrite. I had to do more than listen to good sermons and sing. I had to be a doer, too."
Thomas noticed that people in distress frequently won’t ask for help. So he named his organization Quest to reflect his vision of seeking out and reaching those in need.
Quest started small, providing holiday food packages—which he dubbed "love baskets"—to 18 families. Last year, Quest provided baskets to 600 families.
Of course, hunger isn’t an issue only during holidays; the organization also supports a soup kitchen and food pantry. The soup kitchen, which opened in 1998, served 10,000 meals last year, and Thomas says the number of visitors has increased by 6 percent in 2009. The need for Quest’s food pantry also has swelled.
And helping the hungry is just the tip of the iceberg. Thomas ticks off a list of other Quest programs, including distributing clothing and toiletries, bringing holiday cheer to nursing home residents, teaching sign language, and roaming the winter streets to deliver food to the homeless.
Quest established an Angel Tree program back in 1993. The Lansdowne, Va.–based Angel Tree works with churches nationwide to provide holiday gifts for the children of parents who are in prison. It’s a program that Thomas finds particularly touching, given the painful breach between incarcerated parents and children. "We bring a connection by giving gifts in the name of the incarcerated parent," he says, recalling a time when he watched two kids receive gifts from their dad. "It did me good to see the joy it brought. They were just overjoyed—in absolute glee—that their father remembered them on Christmas."
Such is the power of Quest, which stands as a constant in the community, delivering the small things that heal hearts, ease angst, and fill stomachs.
Volunteers point to Thomas’s gentle heart, strong leadership, and chronic efficiency as the fuel for Quest’s engine. Getting programs off the ground involves little hand-wringing or time-wasting, they say. "We have a meeting, decide on the deadline, and divide up the work," observes Pearlie Purvis, a food bank volunteer. Ruthie Brito, Quest’s secretary, describes Thomas as an innovative dreamer with a fierce commitment to his mission.
Thomas says the ministry that remains dearest to his heart is the soup kitchen. "This is not a prosperous area, and there’s tremendous need," he says. He’s especially proud that meals Quest provides are full, hot ones—not just sandwiches. "At the soup kitchen, we can also look at the whole person and provide physically and spiritually for people," he adds.
When Richard DeFleece, a 52-year-old Burlington resident, comes to the soup kitchen he also picks up lunches that he brings to his mother in a nursing home. "I love coming here," he says. "The people are good, and they treat you like gold."
The time he spends at the soup kitchen gives Thomas a chance to connect with people. It’s one of his strategies for uncovering what they need—whether it’s socks, deodorant, or a sympathetic ear.
The longevity of Thomas’s work with Quest boils down to the feeling it gives him. "It’s more than being happy," he says. "Helping others is a joy. And that really does only come from giving rather than receiving."
Samuel Thomas, Jr.
IMANI Realty & Associates
621 Beverly Rancocas Road
Willingboro, NJ 08046