East Texas church revitalization spurred by food ministry

SWAN  A small East Texas congregation is making a big difference in Swan, a once prosperous community just north of Tyler.

When Jeremiah Dollgener, pastor of First Baptist Swan, came to the church in July 2019, his family of eight doubled the congregation’s size. Attendance, now about 30 members, has more than tripled since the pastor’s arrival.

When Dollgener accepted the church’s call in 2019, he told members he wanted to reach Swan.

“We started praying, ‘God, what does that look like? Give us a specific vision for this community,’” Dollgener, who also teaches social studies at Tyler’s Hogg Middle School, told the TEXAN.

From the 1960s to the 1980s Swan thrived, boasting a grocery store and a post office. Tyler Pipe, Swan’s major employer, located just across County Road 492 from the church, provided jobs for around 2,000, Dollgener learned from local businessmen. 

Then Texas energy sector cratered in the 1980s, devastating the Tyler economy and by extension, Swan’s. Although Tyler has rebounded economically since the 1980s, Swan has not. Tyler Pipe has steadily reduced its local workforce to around 100, Dollgener said. 

Highway 69, on which the church is located, connects Lindale and Interstate 20 to Tyler. Some 4,000 people reside within a three-mile radius of First Baptist. Although one neighborhood features middle-class houses, Swan also contains empty apartment complexes and lower income housing. The area enjoys Tyler water but lacks city sewage, trash pickup and even internet. 

“This is the community God has given us,” Dollgener said, “Our church vision is simple: we love the Lord and we love people.”

In early 2020, this simple vision acquired an unanticipated focus.

Swan native steps forward

A businessman who no longer lived in Swan but had grown up there came to Dollgener’s attention. The man desired to start a food pantry in the community, an idea that had already occurred to the pastor.

Dollgener made contact. The businessman, who asked not to be identified for this article, explained that he had grown up in poverty and remembered the kindness of a local grocer who left boxes of food at his family’s doorstep.

“I remember how much that meant to my parents that they were going to be able to feed all of us kids,” the benefactor said, offering to underwrite the costs of a food pantry in Swan. He just needed space.

“That’s great,” Dollgener replied. “We’ve got all kinds of room [at the church] and no money.”

In January 2020, Swan Food Bank opened its doors at First Baptist, where storage areas and freezers are now stocked with non-perishable and perishable food items. 

“We started in January by going to Walmart and buying 20 loaves of bread, peanut butter, staples like rice and beans. Then COVID-19 hit and we started getting dirty looks when we’d buy 20 loaves,” Dollgener recalled with a chuckle.

Pre-COVID, the church provided food to 10-20 families per week and began preparations for a clothes closet.

When the coronavirus hit, the numbers of families needing food skyrocketed and the church’s distribution system shifted to follow safety protocols and serve 60-70 families weekly, a trend that continues. 

Six months into the pandemic, Swan Food Bank’s partnership with the East Texas Food Bank was approved, allowing the church to obtain free and reduced price grocery items from that facility. Still operating on around $250 per week, they now order weekly from the regional food bank. Dollgener’s wife, Jessica, does the ordering, and volunteers from the church and nearby Hopewell Baptist handle packing, boxing and curbside delivery.

The menu changes weekly, depending upon what the East Texas Food Bank offers. Area citizens and businesses also sometimes drop off food. A nearby Lindale food bank shares its surplus. Tyler Pipe sends regular donations, and the original benefactor covers the bulk of the $1,000 – $1,200 monthly budget.

Each Tuesday, Dollgener hurries from school to the church shortly after
4:00 p.m. to greet clients lining up in the church’s slag parking lot. He offers the week’s menu and sends the orders inside, where Jessica logs the information required by the East Texas Food Bank. The boxed food is delivered within minutes to the waiting cars.

“Each week, the line wraps around the church,” Dollgener said. “For us to see a church that had been in decline for years now with a parking lot full of people is amazing.”

The outreach has attracted families to First Baptist Swan. Volunteer Mike Steemfott, whose wife helps Jessica with orders, began helping in March. 

“The desire to serve has really increased in our church. We’ve gotten some new folks. This attracts people who like to work, who like to do things. They want to make an impact on their community,” Dollgener said, also praising the help from Pastor Floyd Smith and Hopewell Baptist.

Spiritual and physical food

Dollgener asks clients how the church can pray for them. Opportunities to witness for Christ are common. Some families have expressed interest in attending the church after the pandemic ends.

Clients have come to church, including a formerly homeless woman who trusted Christ during a service and was baptized. Only days before, a Swan volunteer had given his own boots and socks to the woman’s boyfriend, who had been wearing worn-out flip flops.

 Physical services at the church resumed in June and Dollgener said he is happy to have the surplus food and clothing available to give people in need who come asking for money.

“We can’t give them money, but we offer them food and let them go in the clothes area and get what they need,” the pastor said, adding that he hopes in post-pandemic times to extend the ministry by expanding the clothes ministry and appointing a board. 

For Ellarene, a colon cancer survivor awaiting disability, each Tuesday’s food distribution is a lifeline.

“I can’t work no more,” Ellarene told the TEXAN. 

Dollgener’s life experiences explain his empathy. Raised in a Christian home, he was saved after high school. The pastor friend who led him to the Lord recommended he attend Criswell College. The Dollgeners married during college. 

The heartbreaking loss of their firstborn to cystic fibrosis led to a stint in Uganda establishing an orphanage and later to their involvement in foster care after moving to the Tyler area, where Dollgener began teaching following two pastorates in East Texas. They have adopted six children, all homeschooled. The older Dollgener kids volunteer at the food pantry.

Over 300 individuals have received help from FBC Swan in the last nine months in a church revitalization project born of a businessman’s vision and a pastor’s dream.

“We really get a chance to meet people’s needs. You look at the Gospels. Jesus goes around meeting people’s needs. He was filled with compassion for the people,” Dollgener said, gesturing to the line of cars: “They are going to be fed because of the work we are doing here.” 

—With reporting by Gary Ledbetter

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