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Hoosier United Methodists offer help in downturn

Members of Trinity United Methodist Church in Elkhart, Ind., provide a complimentary meal for local students and their parents. UMNS photos courtesy of Trinity United Methodist Church.

A UMNS Report
By Dan Gangler*

March 11, 2009

President Barack Obama recently put Elkhart, Ind., in the national spotlight during a visit to highlight his stimulus package.

United Methodist churches are helping their communities in both Elkhart and Kokomo, another Indiana city dealing with downturns in the auto industry and the deepening recession.

About 16,000 people are out of work in Elkhart (population 52,000), many for the first time in their lives. Vehicle manufacturing is a big part of the city’s economy – Elkhart is known as the “RV (recreational vehicle) capital of the world.”

The 850-member Trinity United Methodist Church in Elkhart is ministering to the community to ease the economic pains, despite its own economic suffering. Trinity, one of nine United Methodist congregations in the area, has seen a $100,000 decrease in promised support for this year, according to the Rev. Mark Fenstermacher.

The Rev. Lore Blinn Gibson, Trinity’s senior associate minister, pointed to special ministries on the frontlines helping Trinity reach out to those who are unemployed, underemployed or on furlough. Located 110 miles east of Chicago, Elkhart suffers from almost 17 percent unemployment; a year ago the rate was around 5 percent.

“Each month, we receive a Matthew 25 Offering at our communion rail,” Gibson said. “The Matthew 25 team distributes that money to area agencies and food pantries to use in direct relief to the poor. We also directly help church members, particularly those who have cut hours and don’t qualify for other aid.”

As part of this program, Trinity fills gallon-sized plastic bags, called “bags of grace,” with snack-sized food for distribution to community soup kitchens and homeless agencies. Each bag contains four meals. Matthew 25 also sends gift cards anonymously to families suffering from job losses.

Networking and volunteering

Trinity has sponsored two “Networking Nights” for employment opportunities, Gibson said, and is planning a third night. The church pulls together representatives from Ivy Tech Community College, Bethel College and Indiana University-Elkhart to help those laid off from RV plants to use money earmarked for their training or to connect those who completed training and GED programs with placement.

From its own congregation, the church uses human resource people, headhunters, small-business and financial advisers and retired accountants to assist people with employment possibilities and transitional budgets. Trinity also partners with a local Presbyterian church’s support group.

Trinity’s activity with a cooperative food pantry run by several congregations also has increased.

“To meet the demand, small groups within the church are sponsoring a March Madness – get mad about hunger campaign on March 21-22,” Gibson said. “They are challenging us to collect 10,000 boxes of food.”

The church’s Web site allows people to write anonymously about how they were helped through various programs.

“We encourage the unemployed to continue to serve God with their time,” she added. “So we have unemployed people who paint at Faith Mission, donate administrative help to the church and serve in a variety of ways in the community.

“We pray for our city all the time, and watch for opportunities to serve,” Gibson said. “This is why we exist.”

Kokomo’s plight

In December, Kokomo – a small city of 46,000 about 50 miles north of Indianapolis – was ranked third by Forbes in a list of America’s fastest dying towns. More than a quarter of Kokomo’s workforce is employed in the auto sector, including Chrysler and parts-maker Delphi, which filed for bankruptcy in 2005.

Kokomo’s jobless rate hit 9.8 percent in November, a dramatic increase from a year ago, when unemployment was at 5.5 percent.

In downtown Kokomo, the 600-member Grace United Methodist Church has been directly affected by the layoffs at Delphi, which had furloughed executives and engineers without pay for two weeks. Dephi salaries have been cut 10 percent.

According to the Rev. Steve Beutler, Grace’s pastor, the church has helped three member families keep their houses from foreclosure and has sent three other families to a Christian-based financial training seminar for assistance.

Grace church is located next to the Kokomo Rescue Mission, a nondenominational Christian social service agency, and is heavily involved with activities there. The church also helps support Jeff Newton, a missionary who works with Kokomo Urban Ministries.

The rescue mission has seen a 30 percent increase in meals served this year compared to this same time last year. In 2008, the mission served more than 112,000 meals and provided more than 23,000 shelter nights for men and women. The mission operates a 20-bed women’s shelter that has seen a 25 percent increase in women and a 40 percent increase in children compared to this past year.

Other support

On Valentine’s Day, Grace hosted the Kokomo Rescue Mission “Walk-a-Mile” breakfast. The 850 walk participants raised more than $73,000 to provide safe shelter, nutritious meals and access to programs for homeless women and their children.

“The church has given out more than $5,000 in direct aid from the minister’s utility fund to pay for home heating, medicine and gasoline,” Beutler said. He added that the church is meeting its budget requirements and has not experienced a dip in giving.

The Rev. Mike Dominick

The city’s Shiloh and St. Luke’s United Methodist churches have felt the impact, too. According to the Rev. Ray “Bud” Probasco, Shiloh is meeting the social needs of the congregation and community through Sunday school and all-day community seminars.

“The church recently hosted a small group session with a Sunday school class that turned into an all afternoon affair of sharing fears, concerns and gaining support,” he said. A March seminar “will deal with what can be done before one is let go and what needs to be done when one is given a pink slip.”

The Rev. Mike Dominick, senior pastor of St. Luke’s, said his members had been “only slightly affected by the downturn.” A wave of people moved to jobs elsewhere, while others took retirement packages.

“Of course, we are offering them general encouragement and prayer, and the opportunity to talk about things when they need to do so, but we have no organized program to cope with this crisis,” he said.

Dominick pointed out that the church’s food pantry has had a definite increase in requests with the downturn. “We’ve given away multiple, multiple food orders,” he said.

*Gangler is director of communications for the Indiana Conference of The United Methodist Church.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org

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