SULTAN — When the white box truck pulled up to the curb on a cold January afternoon, more than two dozen people — many dressed in several layers of clothing — quickly congregated beneath a vacant storefront awning.
They were both eager and patient.
They knew the unwritten rule: All the food must be unloaded onto the Sultan sidewalk before they can start gathering up their goods.
There is a sense of civility to these weekly proceedings. Although many are hungry, this is not a free-for-all. They know they can take what they need, no matter how much, no questions asked.
“They bring good stuff,” said Connie Christie, of Sultan. “It’s not garbage. There are a lot of people having a hard time right now. A lot of us would be in trouble without them.”
The “them” she referred to are the Rev. Jim and Susan Coffey. The Index couple’s Open Hands Ministry provides food and meals to the down-and-out in small towns across the Skykomish Valley. In any given week, they feed 200 people.
It is a relatively new calling for the couple who married three years ago after meeting through a church where services were held in a Marysville livestock auction barn. He once was a water systems manager and had a 10-acre horse farm on Camano Island; she worked in the business office of a Yakima lumber mill for many years.
They traded their steady paychecks for the chance to serve others. Now they rely on donations and an unflinching faith that God will provide.
Jim Coffey, 66, grew up in Edmonds and wears a white horseshoe mustache beneath the brim of his black cowboy hat. He has a friendly, soothing voice.
Susan Coffey, 51, bundles up in a thick coat she doesn’t mind getting dirty. It comes with the territory of gathering donated food from Mill Creek and Everett supermarket loading docks. She hugs some of the regulars she’s come to know in Startup, Sultan, Gold Bar and Index.
Their Open Hands Ministry is part of a national association of Christian ministries. Their church is called “The Plantation” but there isn’t an actual building yet. Its motto is “Harvesting one soul at a time.” They hope to build the church in Startup some day.
The Coffeys and volunteers Steffan Wallin and Jim Roberts encounter all sorts of people on their routes. Some live in shacks with dirt floors; others, in cars, tiny apartments and tents.
“They are removed, almost invisible,” Coffey said.
There are surprising visitors, too. The other day, a well-dressed, professional-looking woman gathered up bags of food. As she was driving off in a Liberty Jeep, she rolled down her window and told Coffey: “This was really, really, really helpful.”
Tracey Welever lives in a Sultan duplex with her mother on a fixed income. She said she fell on hard times and lost her home after her husband died of cancer in 2006.
Welever said she’s particularly thankful for the fresh vegetables the Coffeys bring.
“You can only eat so many cans of cranberry sauce,” she said.
John Youngblood, 50, calls Sultan his home, but he doesn’t have an address. His mud-caked shoes and dirt-dusted blue jeans provide a clue to his abode — a tent along the river.
“It’s almost like you get lost in time,” he said.
There’s a rhythm to the Coffeys’ lives. They attend church twice on Sundays in Index and Snohomish and make twice weekly trips to Mill Creek and Everett to pick up food. Each Monday, they hand out food and provide a hot meal in Index. They do the same thing in Gold Bar each Tuesday.
Thursdays find them dropping off food in Startup and Sultan.
Their ministry is inspired by Deuteronomy 15:11: “For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, ‘Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.’”
It boils down to a simple premise, Coffey said.
“We show them the love of the Lord,” he said.
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; email@example.com.
Donations to the Index-based Open Hands Ministry can be made through PayPal to firstname.lastname@example.org