Ship Outreach: Filling the Gap

Pastor Chris Jones addresses the needs of his neighbors, including access to affordable groceries, Wi-Fi, and fitness.
by Catherine Currin | photography by Tyler Cunningham

“We’re trying to fill the gaps,” says Pastor Chris Jones, founder of Ship Community Outreach. Jones founded Ship of Zion Church in 2001, and after realizing the needs of his church, he founded Ship Community Outreach in 2010. Jones started small: “We assessed the needs of the community by observing the people. I remember giving out socks and a few hot dogs to the men hanging around Bragg Street.” The Ship, as he calls it, now has numerous programs in South Raleigh, serving more than 3,000 people monthly.

One of its programs is the Galley Grocery. It’s in a low-income neighborhood that’s one of the many food deserts across Raleigh. Galley Grocery is a full-service market, complete with meat, produce, snacks, and more. EBT and SNAP benefits are accepted, and you can also use a voucher directly from The Ship, distributed through other area nonprofits. “We wanted a place of dignity where people could buy more things with their food stamps,” says Jones. “They are shopping for food instead of just receiving a box of free food.” The store also has Wi-Fi available. Jones says, “many people take Wi-Fi for granted, but a lot of people in this neighborhood can’t afford it.”

Adjacent to Galley Grocery is Ship Yard, a gym and workout area. Jones created it after seeing a need for a free place to encourage fitness, particularly for neighbors reentering society after incarceration. “I was going to prisons and seeing how people were taking care of themselves, but as soon as they were released, they were back into their old habits,” he says.

“People shouldn’t have to go to prison to think about their nutrition and well-being.” The organization also distributes food to those who are unable to pay, through a warehouse off South Saunders Street. The Ship’s executive director, Aleece Spalding, says this program is flexible, fast, and responsive. “Our model is to find where the need is, and work with the people in that community,” Spalding says. “We provide the food, they provide the volunteers. We can set up outreaches anywhere.”

Food in their warehouse is sourced from organizations including the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina and Food Lion. Thousands of loaves of bread come monthly from Pepperidge Farm. These distributions are rewarding for everyone involved. “I often saw families helping each other find what they were looking for, sharing their favorite ways to cook food, and discussing its nutritional value,” says Skyler Russell-Nguyen, who worked there as a summer intern. “It also creates a welcoming environment.” 

Spalding started her journey at Ship as a volunteer years ago. She helped distribute food at one of the organization’s Community Days, which brings dozens of churches together to distribute food, clothing, and other supplies. During the pandemic, this monthly event has been operating as a drive-thru. “What impressed me about it was that it wasn’t about a single church,” she says.

“It just brought the Christian community together.” Spalding volunteered to facilitate Ship’s strategic plan in 2017, then became director of development to help execute it. She was promoted to executive director in 2020. Though she plans to retire this year, she’ll continue to support the organization as a volunteer.

Spalding and Jones also work with two other vulnerable populations: people impacted by gangs and victims of human trafficking. Within the Ship of Zion Church, the organization hosts the Transitional Employment Initiative (TEI), which encourages gang-impacted individuals to work toward employment through mentorships and job training. “People from different walks of life are impacted by gangs,” says Jones. “Not just gang members, but people who live around them or have family members involved.” They serve around 50 individuals through this program each year.

TEI is also connected to The Ship’s most recent initiative: constructing a transitional housing and day center for those affected by trafficking. It’s a bigger problem than many realize, Jones says. According to data from watch group Polaris, North Carolina’s reports of trafficking-related crime are among the highest in the country. The new facility will house 22 women at a time, along with emergency housing in the future for up to 40 women. “We hope to help a lot more women,” Jones says.

Spalding credits District C city councilman Corey Branch for playing a huge part in the planning for this project.  “So many people need a chance and don’t know where to get it,” Branch says. “Having a facility for women to turn their life around is so important. The facility will open in South Raleigh to serve as a refuge for those looking for safety or to start over. ”

The Ship supports a wide array of communities, but the sentiment of meeting people where they are rings true in every program. It’s that grassroots spirit that allows them to deliver the best help: they see a need, they mobilize, and they use their network to get it done. Says Jones: “Initially we took care of the needs of our communities’ bodies — and now, through our ministry, we fill other gaps.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of WALTER Magazine.