|Gatlinburg church reaches out to forgotten population|
The Rev. Jane Taylor (right) of First United Methodist Church in
Gatlinburg, Tenn., offers encouragement to people living in poverty at
weekly rental motels in this tourist town outside the Great Smoky
Mountains National Park. UMNS photos by Annette Spence.
A UMNS Report
By Annette Spence*
Sept. 2, 2009 | GATLINBURG, Tenn.
In this town of pancake restaurants and souvenir shops, it’s easy to
miss the occasional rundown old motel. The tourists drive or walk past,
unaware of the misery existing within yards of their mini-golf games
and ice cream cones.
John Clayton (left background) and Mike Poe (right) deliver free groceries through the Bread of Life ministry.
The red van from First United Methodist Church,
however, does not drive past. Every Tuesday afternoon, the van pulls
into eight or nine weed-infested parking lots. The driver blows the
horn, and the people and dogs spill out from their broken porches and
While volunteers from the church hand out free groceries, the Rev. Jane Taylor offers smiles and hugs.
She knows most of the residents by name. When she invites them to
church - “Are you coming tomorrow night?” - it’s like she’s inviting
them to Aunt Jane’s for supper.
The Tuesday afternoon ministry known as "Bread of Life" serves what
church members say is the forgotten Gatlinburg population: They
are the people who come expecting work to be plentiful, but often end
up hungry and unemployed in a resort city with inflated property values.
"There's so much poverty here, for a town with so much wealth," says Mike Poe, a member of First United Methodist.
Behind the glitter
On a big night in this vacation town, home to attractions such as
amusement parks, an aquarium and musical variety shows, 35,000 visitors
sleep in 11,000 hotel rooms, cabins, and condominiums, according to the
Gatlinburg Chamber of Commerce. Hotels for tourists range from luxury
mountain chalets to family-oriented inns with swimming pools and
However, the people served by the First United Methodist Church
are not on vacation, and they don't have maid service. Many struggle
with unemployment and addictions. Families crowd into has-been hotel
rooms with weekly rates, because other housing is so expensive and they
cannot save enough money to go anywhere else.
First United Methodist Church in
Gatlinburg, Tenn., is mostly hidden behind a fudge shop.
"Whenever they earn any money, they have to spend it all on their
rent. So there's nothing left to buy anything else," says Taylor.
The church founded Bread of Life about six years ago when the Rev.
Eric Rieger was pastor. Taylor, pastor for the past two years, says the
church made "an intentional effort to be community minded.”
Since its founding, Bread of Life has become more critically needed as the economy worsened.
Surrounded by the Great Smoky Mountains, Sevier County had a
workforce of about 40,000 in 2007, according to the Tennessee
Department of Labor. Since then, the county's unemployment rate has
increased from 5.7 percent to 9.7 percent.
Some of the weekly motel residents do find jobs, but they compete
for fewer openings at a time when the U.S. hotel industry reported an
18.7 percent drop in revenue in the first half of 2009.
"The jobs are few because this town is flooded with people looking
for work," says Poe, who leads the Bread of Life. "If we don't find
them, they find us, because word travels in these motels."
"It's going to get better soon, because the college students are
going back to school," says David, age 57, who arrived three weeks ago
from Hollywood, Fla.
David is not employed, although on this day he put in applications at a store warehouse and an amusement ride.
Taylor (left) and Tracy Starker (right) assist an ill motel resident.
However, David has already visited First United Methodist Church, along with his two companions, Ed and Bob.
In addition to Sunday morning services, the church offers two
programs that welcome newcomers: a Wednesday night meal with Bible
study and a Sunday night meal with worship.
Some people come, too, with the aid of a free van ride from their
motels. On Wednesday nights at First United Methodist, about half of
the 25 children and five to 10 of the 30 adults were originally invited
through Bread of Life. On Sunday nights, most of the 60 are from the
"They have grown to trust the church and to trust Jane," says Poe, a
self-employed contractor who leaves his work site every Tuesday
afternoon to serve Bread of Life. The church has partnerships with
Second Harvest and Food City to provide groceries for about 96
families, or 1,000 people in a month's time.
Robert, age 51, is one of the more fortunate motel residents. He has
a job as a combination groundskeeper, pool maintenance man, and laundry
room attendant at a hotel. Robert came to Gatlinburg from Biloxi,
Miss., as a Hurricane Katrina refugee in 2005. He now pays $115 a week
for his room, which he says is on the lower end of the typical $100 to
$150 per week.
"Thank God for the food delivery," says Robert, lining up behind the
van for bread, milk, and canned goods. When Robert was unemployed last
winter, he joined the Bread of Life van crew and handed out food.
"They've been helping me for three years, so I was glad to do it,"
says Robert. "You've got to feed the people. They're our brothers and
Other motel residents have joined in the ministry, too, such as
Angel, who now oversees the clothes closet at First United Methodist.
Angel's 6-year-old son, Malik, also comes to the church.
"Just because I have my situation, doesn't mean I can't help
somebody else," Angel says. "I just love everyone I've met through the
Many vacationing United Methodists stroll past the church every day
without knowing it. The 71-year-old stone church is hidden behind a
pizza restaurant and fudge shop off Gatlinburg's heavily trafficked
parkway. Listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, the church seems out of place beneath the iconic Space Needle amusement ride.
Since 1996, however, First Gatlinburg has grown from 80 in average worship attendance to 185 today.
"People have become a part of the church because of the outward focus on the community," Taylor says.
About 15 to 20 people from the congregation help order, pack, and
deliver the food each week, Taylor says. The church commits about
$7,000 in its annual budget to Bread of Life.
Yet, Taylor and others in the ministry realized long ago: "This is
way bigger than us. We need help. ...We're trying to expand on what we
Within the past year, First United Methodist Church joined with First Baptist Church and Our Savior Lutheran Church to form Friends in Need.
The Baptist church recently began offering hot meals to the needy on
Monday; the Lutheran church on Thursday. The goal is to try to provide
at least one good meal "every day of the week," Taylor says.
Friends in Need is also working with other community groups to
provide food to families through the elementary schools, offer
mentoring and tutoring for students and locate or build affordable,
permanent housing for the weekly motel residents.
On Tuesday afternoons, Taylor, Poe and the rest of the van crew
forget no one on their rounds. They make sure their neighbors are fed,
loved and welcomed into the community of believers.
"Many people in our church know about life. They know that life
happens, and none of us are perfect," Taylor says. "We're not here to
judge, but to show them we care."
*Spence is the editor of The Call, the newspaper of the Holston Annual Conference.
News media contact: David Briggs, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.
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