Congregations providing in a pinch

Local churches and their congregations are feeling the pinch from the economic downtown, and are praying for relief.

SOUTH PACIFIC COUNTY — When souls are low on strength, hope, or guidance, religion is commonly the first place people turn to replenish their spiritual stock. 

And for those who are really down on their luck and find themselves at a church, sometimes there is help available in the form of food, clothing or a ride. But what happens to churches when hard times or unexpected emergencies become more prevalent and a hand up is just as crucial as a lift in spirits?

For some area churches, the economic slump has made its presence known, resulting in the need to trim fat from their budgets and prioritize requests for assistance with food, shelter, clothing and transportation.   

‘The bills get paid’

David George, pastor at New Life Assembly of God in Ilwaco, says while the economy hasn’t directly affected his church’s day-to-day functions, it has resulted in an increase of public requests for assistance. 

“The bills get paid and the lights are still on,” he jokes. “In all honesty, God has just been blessing: the bills have been met; we started on a campaign to pay off our facility; we’ve had a loan on the church for about 15 years and we’re close to paying that off. We went through our own financial crisis three or four years ago, and cut a lot of the fat out. We trimmed $30 to $50 out of the monthly budget and have been running fairly efficiently.”

With waning interest in the church’s annual Mexico missions trip, New Life Assembly of God continues to fundraise to financially support a Mexican orphanage. And on Valentine’s Day, church members will again be selling balloon bouquets to fund a trip where George and a member from his congregation will help at an Egyptian clinic in March. 

 

Feeling the economy — or not

“As with churches and organizations throughout the country, Ocean Park Lutheran Church has felt the affects of the economic downturn financially and in terms of our mission,” Pastor Adrienne Strehlow explains. “The ministry that we do here is supported primarily through member and visitor giving, while a small portion is supported through community events that we offer, such as the Mystery Dinner Theater, salmon dinner auction, and the spring yard sale. The economy has affected both the attendance at these events and the amount that worshippers are able to contribute, especially given that many of our members are on a fixed income supported by investments that may have been negatively affected. 

“In terms of mission, however, the economic downturn has propelled this community to respond to the need locally on the Peninsula and globally. This church’s commitment to programs such as Peninsula FISH, Community Table, and the ELCA World Hunger Appeal is stronger than ever. For example, Community Table, an ecumenical effort, has grown in the last three years from serving around 30 meals a week to now serving around 100 per week.”

When asked whether the economy has impacted the Valley Bible Church in Grays River, Pastor Rick Ballif says, “No it hasn’t, we’ve been real fortunate in that regard … Generally speaking the church is doing OK.”

He says his congregation appears to be in good shape as well, but notes that he has friends in other ministries that have suffered from cutbacks, layoffs and pay cuts in recent months.

Careful with choices

While employment concerns, pensions and Social Security are some of his church members’ concerns these days, Evangelical Lutheran Church of Chinook Pastor Chris Ode says the condition of the stock market has affected investment and endowment funds, which makes up a chunk of the church’s income.

Ode explains that as a result, “We’ve just been very careful, very deliberate about the choices we make when it comes to spending money, and I think we’ve done a good job at doing that.” 

Pastor Marty Cole says Ocean Park Community Church has been working “in the red” for the past two months, and as a result, they’ve had to cut down on Sunday school curriculum and advertising. But even with the financial challenges he’s facing, Cole says the church is not changing its operations and services — in fact, they are adding new weekly events, such as a weekly dinner and movie night.

“It’s not that we can’t afford it, it’s that we can’t afford not to!” he explains. “There’s needs the church has, but it’s not the church’s job to create needs, it’s the church’s job to meet the needs.”

 

Locals needing help

Being that New Life is a very visible church when entering the Peninsula, George says he has become fairly accustomed to the occasional transient or hitchhiker asking for food or a place to stay.

But recently, there’s been an increase in assistance requests from members of his congregation and area residents, which are typically given higher priority. And when feasible, George says the church will help with procuring food, gas, rent or helping someone get their car back on the road. 

“Probably over the last six months, we’ve done about $3,000 in terms of assistance — just in terms of getting someone’s car payment paid or helping them pay a utility,” says George, who feels the increase in unemployment is partially to blame for local hardships.

Cole agrees, “I’ve had people come in my back door while I’m working and we go out and make them a hot cup of coffee, make them a few sandwiches, give them a cookie and send them on the road.”

“We had to say ‘No’ a lot over Christmas time,” George says. “The first week and a half of December, we had given out quite a bit and had to turn away gas and rent requests.”

 

Churches working together

In addition to prioritizing requests by need and association with the church, George says local pastors have also begun networking to avoid potential abuse of their giving nature. Any time a church provides someone with a night to stay, a tank of gas, or another form of assistance, the pastor lets other churches know that the individual has been helped.

“We’re a small church and our budget is fairly limited,” he explains. “One of the benefits of church is the fellowship, and when my congregation hears of a need, they jump all over it and ask me what they can do to help … When people in the church know of a need, a legitimate need, there’s usually a response to that.” 

Naselle Assembly of God Pastor Richard Cary says he has seen an increase in requests for assistance within the community he serves, which encompasses Naselle, Rosburg and Grays River. While the church can help meet needs through its food and clothing bank, Cary says the most common request right now is for assistance with utility bill payments. 

Ode says he too has observed definite needs of groceries or a warm place to stay overnight, and the church offers assistance when possible.

“The congregation has responded real well amidst the downturn and has done a fantastic job to support offering,” he says. “They have responded very admirably and have been faithful in their stewardship.”

Pastor Donn Smith, at Seaview’s Grace Family Fellowship, says the economic downturn hasn’t had a real noticeable effect on the day-to-day functions of the church. 

As for his congregation, Smith says, “I think that several of them are getting food boxes, getting help from the food bank, that sort of thing. Other than that, they seem able to get along with what they’re getting, it doesn’t seem to be much of a problem. People don’t seem to be in financial difficulty yet, but they have been complaining about gas prices and grocery prices and things like that.”

Just recently, Smith received a call from someone in Surfside who needed to move their RV to Ilwaco but didn’t have enough gas to get it there. So the pastor filled up a five-gallon gas can to help the stranger out. 

Community assistance isn’t always about food, fuel or finances, either. George says his congregation also acts as a resource for those out of work, by calling the pastor when they hear of a job opening in our area.

 

Other sources of help

Cole says if a person comes to the church with needs that are greater than what the church can provide, he typically directs them to FISH, the sheriff’s office, or another resource that may be of assistance.

Ilwaco Pastor Colin Wellard says Pacific Bible Church’s income has significantly increased, which allowed for a larger budget in 2011. Since the church supports the Astoria Rescue Mission, Women’s Pregnancy Center and His Supper Table, those in need are typically referred to one of those organizations. But recently, requests have come in for help with gas, and Wellard estimates that 50 percent of them come from folks who aren’t from around here.

Strehlow echoes the same sentiments, “We encourage people to go to Peninsula FISH for help with food and rent, but sometimes people come to us for assistance and we help with emergency gas, food, and a bill or two. Over the last few months I have noticed that there might actually be a need for a homeless shelter on the Peninsula, but mostly people living in drafty trailers need occasional help with items because employment is so difficult to find here.”

“We try to help people whenever we can, that’s part of our ministry to people of the Peninsula,” Smith explains. “I have a hunch that we’ll be feeling this a lot more in the days to come …”

“The last few years have been difficult throughout the world, but it is an opportunity for individuals and communities to evaluate their priorities and values,” Strehlow concludes. “As a church, I see this community responding to the economic downturn by cutting unessential items from our budget in order to have the resources to live out our mission of witnessing to Jesus Christ by sharing the love of God in our community. Sometimes it is hard to meet all the financial needs around us, but in partnership with other churches and social service agencies on the Peninsula, our prayer is that this mission is lived out passionately and effectively during this difficult time in the world.”

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