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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.

John Clayton (left background) and Mike Poe (right) deliver free groceries through the Bread of Life ministry.

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.

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 dark rooms.

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 continental breakfasts.

First United Methodist Church in
Gatlinburg, Tenn., is mostly hidden behind a fudge shop.

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.

"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."

Finding hope

"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.

Taylor (left) and Tracy Starker (right) assist an ill motel resident.

David is not employed, although on this day he put in applications at a store warehouse and an amusement ride.

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 motels.

"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 sisters."

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 church."

New partners

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.

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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 can do."

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 newsdesk@umcom.org.

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