Together, we find solutions

“I’m hungry. I need a box.”

Several clients have said this to me as I check them in at We Care We Share, a food pantry and clothing closet on East 31st Street in South Lorain, Ohio.

Residents across the county can pick up a food box every four weeks at our food pantry. There are other pantries around and many of our patrons visit them as well. There’s nothing wrong with that.

People are hungry.

In the United States.

Food insecurity

One in five children in Ohio is “food insecure,” John Corlett, president and executive director of the Cleveland-based Center for Community Solutions, told several hundred of us who attended the inaugural Child Hunger Summit on Thursday at Lorain County Community College in Elyria.

Corlett defined food insecurity as “a household’s inability to provide enough food for every person to live an active, healthy life.”

One in five children lives in such a household. 20 percent of our impressionable young people.

Hunger stretches beyond an empty stomach, Corlett continued. Children in food-insecure households have higher rates of asthma, depression, ADHD (which can lead to discipline and behavior issues in school) and hospital emergency room visits. Food-insecure parents have more stress, anxiety, depression and anger, Corlett said.

A comprehensive approach

That’s why the Lorain-based Second Harvest Food Bank of North Central Ohio hosted the Child Hunger Summit. The event brought together business professionals, educators, non-profit leaders, government officials and others to brainstorm ways to overcome food insecurity.

It takes a wide-ranging, comprehensive approach. Stagnant wages, unhealthy lifestyles and government programs that too often exclude those who need them all are issues that hungry people face.

Half of food-insecure families in Ohio don’t qualify for SNAP because they make a little too much money to qualify for the federal food assistance program, Corlett said.

Families seeking public assistance – and those who receive it – often are stigmatized as lazy people who sit around accepting handouts. But most people on assistance programs, including SNAP, hold down one or more jobs and still can’t make ends meet, Corlett said.

He advocated expanding basic programs such as SNAP and WIC – which assists pregnant women and families with infants and children up to age 5 – to reach more people who need them.

Living wages

He also urged employers to provide living wages.

While not a poverty issue, this is a main sticking point in the United Auto Workers’ strike against General Motors Corp., which began earlier this week. Many workers, especially new hires, can’t afford to buy the vehicles they make.

Autoworkers also are seeking job security, noting that GM made a big profit last year – $35 billion, according to some accounts.

At the We Care We Share food pantry, I see families – often with a single mom as head of household – who move frequently. It’s not unusual for the address in our computer to be different than the address on her driver’s license. It’s also not unusual for her to give me yet another address.

Food insecurity has many ramifications.

I don’t probe, but I wonder if at least some of these families were evicted. Or at least have trouble making a rent payment.

Improvements uneven

Statistics show that food insecurity has dropped a little since 2008 as the economy has improved, but Corlett noted that the economic gains have been uneven. Wages have not kept pace, he said. And in 2016, household food insecurity was twice as bad for families led by African-American or Hispanic parents than for families led by whites.

The federal government can help food-insecure families, Corlett said. The Earned Income Tax Credit is the best government program to reduce poverty by providing income through the tax system, he said.

Second best is SNAP, followed by the child care tax credit.

SNAP – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – reduces adult obesity by 16 percentage points and increases the likelihood of children completing high school by 18 percentage points, he said. (The median SNAP benefit for households with young children is $12.86 per day – often for a household of two or three people, so that money doesn’t go very far.)

And yet SNAP, WIC and Medicaid participation are dropping, for several potential reasons:

  • Those programs have been automated and not everyone has access to a computer. SNAP benefits are loaded on a card that recipients spend at stores that participate, for example.
  • Some needy residents do not speak fluent English, and there’s isn’t as much guidance from volunteers and government agencies to apply for and navigate these programs. (I’ve seen this at the food pantry as well. Thankfully, we have three Spanish-speaking volunteers who translate for us when a client speaks little or no English.) In the United States, Corlett said, more than 20 percent of families with children younger than 6 speak a language other than English at home.
  • WIC – a federal supplemental nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children – reaches about 52 percent of eligible participants in Lorain County, the same as the state average, said Marissa Wayner, WIC director for Lorain County Public Health in Elyria. That has declined in recent years. Fewer people are eligible, she said. Other issues include:
  • Lack of awareness of the program.
  • Not knowing who qualifies.
  • Federal immigration policies.
  • Stigma at the store: Am I buying unqualified items?

SNAP and other federal programs are not intended to provide all of a family’s food, said Sandy Moraco of Elyria-based Lorain County Department of Job & Family Services. The “S,” after all, stands for “Supplemental.”

Starting Oct. 1, Moraco said, eligible families may apply for SNAP benefits by phone: (844) 640-OHIO. That will save time and require fewer in-person visits by clients, she said.

Working together

The bottom line?

Food insecurity has multiple causes and requires multiple solutions. All of us in this country must work together to ensure that our residents have access to the most basic rights of human life.

A full stomach. Knowing where our next meal is coming from. Access to health care. A roof over our heads that we can afford.

I haven’t mentioned transportation, but that’s an issue too. We need a dependable way to get to work, to the doctor’s office, to the grocery store.

Most of us take these things for granted. We shouldn’t.

That’s why I volunteer at a food pantry. Perhaps there are other things I can do as well to help those around me overcome food insecurity.

Will you join me in this effort?

Change inevitable

Some change is forced on us.

I was downsized from a job I held for 24 years. I was given a choice: Accept a buyout or a 40 percent pay cut along with an increased workload. My job was eliminated.

Some changes we choose.

I volunteer with an organization called We Care We Share in Lorain, Ohio. It offers a food pantry two afternoons a week. I learned from a friend that volunteers were needed there, so I showed up one day and began volunteering. I didn’t have to do that, but I chose to.

Some change is inevitable.

Some of the hairs on my head are turning gray. My eyes also change over time; I’m due for another check-up one of these days. I’ll probably need a new eyeglasses prescription. The joys of aging.

If there’s one constant in life, it’s that there’s nothing constant in life.

Moment by moment, we change

No two days are exactly alike. Change is the name of the game.

The car I drive is 23 years old. It’s still running pretty well, but the mechanic recommended $1,600 in repairs to keep it up to speed. I’m not sure the car is worth that, so we’ll probably replace it in the near future.

I’ve attended three funerals in the past two months. All were for senior citizens, thankfully, but still: People wear out, just like cars do.

There’s no anti-aging pill that lasts forever, much as science has tried to find one.

We make choices literally every minute of every day. To get up in the morning, or not. What to eat for breakfast. Or not. Whether to show up for work or an appointment on time. Or not. Whether to look for a new job, a new relationship, a new residence (including a new location sometimes) …

We bought a house a year and a half ago, after renting for 3.5 years. We did some remodeling in the kitchen last fall because my wife wanted to put her touch on our home. That’s certainly a good thing. But what to remodel and how to do it were choices we had to make – and you’d do it differently, I’m sure.

I won’t even get into politics. We all know the contrasts between our current president and the previous one.

Think big picture. We change presidents every four or eight years. Change is inevitable.

The U.S. Constitution is more than 200 years old, but even that has been expanded. And new laws are passed all the time, federally, at the state level and locally.

Change changes us

Hearts and minds change too, sometimes dramatically.

At my last job, I worked with adults with developmental disabilities. Some of those folks were born with their disabilities, but others received their mental and/or physical disabilities through trauma. One guy fell off a roof. Another was abused terribly as a child.

Even those born with disabilities can learn to overcome them, to a degree. Those folks can accomplish a lot more than we often give them credit for. Even if they can’t communicate well, they often see and understand quite a lot. And they can communicate – with sign language, facial expressions, nodding yes or no, and in other ways.

I left there because not all change is good. And some changes I felt were necessary weren’t happening.

Choices.

Some people quit smoking. Some people conquer a drug or alcohol addiction. These things aren’t easy, but they can be done.

It’s easier if we make the choice to avoid those substances before we even start. But we need strong grown-ups to lead their children away from those temptations, don’t we, since most addictions start when we are young.

Addictions are not inevitable. Broken families are not inevitable. Some of us are exposed to these things earlier than others of us are, but each of us is responsible for our own choices.

Fighting change, or embracing it

If life doesn’t go the way we’d like it to – and it won’t, sooner or later – we have choices to make. Dozens of my former co-workers got downsized at the same time I did. A few got jobs in other career fields right away, or a short time later. A couple of them retired. Some stayed with the company, with new responsibilities – and in some cases, a new location. I took the buyout and sat on my hands and knees for awhile until the buyout ended, then took a $9 an hour job while I figured out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

Same scenario, different choices.

Different results.

Many of my former co-workers are still in the same city. Some of us aren’t.

Here in northeast Ohio, Republic Steel and U.S. Steel factories are idle, the result of layoffs. One of those plants may resume production soon on a limited basis. General Motors Corp. just closed a factory in Lordstown, a little more than an hour’s drive from here, putting 1,435 workers in the unemployment line.

The cycle continues.

Change is inevitable. Sometimes we choose it, sometimes we don’t.

How we respond to change determines the course our lives will take.

We can fight change.

Or we can embrace it.

Even that is a choice.

The one constant

Are there any constants in life, besides change? Any at all?

Only one.

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.

Hebrews 13:8

 

That’s it.

Whoever hears these sayings of mine and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock.

Jesus speaking, in Matthew 7:24-25

 

No foundation on Earth lasts like that. All of them will eventually crumble, whether a physical building or a moral or spiritual truth that we base our lives upon.

Even as the winds of life  blow – and they certainly will – we have a foundation to fall back on.

That’s why I’m a Christian. When the storms of life threaten to carry me away (you know what I mean), I have a home base that will protect me.

I change, certainly. I learn and grow, hopefully. I am not the person I was 10 years ago, when I was downsized. Or even last year.

But even as my job situation fluctuated and my location changed, the God I worship did not change. He supports me when all else fails me.

Sometimes, we don’t discover how much we need a rock until change threatens to destroy us.

Climb on the rock. You’re never far from it, no matter who or where you are.

That’s your sanctuary in the storms of life.

A solid vision in a changing world

Each of us has hopes and dreams.

Congregations do, too.

It’s neat when a group of people come together with a common vision. There’s power when many people pursue a plan with one voice.

A rural church near Oberlin, Ohio, had dreamed and prayed for a new home for almost 20 years, since their decades-old site no longer served them well.

Eventually, their prayers were answered.

The 50-member Christian and Missionary Alliance Church congregation purchased a 5,000-square-foot empty former private home “in a serene place tucked away from the machinations of modern-day life,” according to the Chronicle-Telegram of Elyria, Ohio.

“It was the very church they’d dreamed of all those years.”

A new church, of sorts

In a similar way, the much larger, multi-campus church my wife and I attend has dreamed for many years of opening a campus in Lorain, Ohio. The Church of the Open Door operates campuses in Elyria, Avon Lake (where we attend) and Vermilion. The three sites surround Lorain. (If you’re checking my geography, Sheffield and Sheffield Lake stand between Lorain and Avon Lake to the east, and Lake Erie is the fourth boundary, to the north.)

It’s finally happening.

The church hired a Lorain campus pastor earlier this year. Prayer teams, small groups and community outreach have already begun, even before the Lorain building opens.

Unlike the Oberlin church’s dream, our Lorain campus vision is urban.

Our senior pastor offered this explanation for the Lorain vision:

 

Jesus said to the followers, “Let us go to the towns near here so I can preach there also. That is why I came.”

Mark 1:38

 

When the Lorain pastor shared his vision for a multi-ethnic, multi-racial congregation that serves the city, including the immediate community around the new building, I – and several dozen others – caught the vision.

In a way, I’ve been down this road before.

Reality re-shapes a vision

We raised our three sons in Saginaw, Michigan. We were active at Ames United Methodist Church, an inner-city church in the middle of a West Side neighborhood.

One day, when our children still were very young, the denomination did some census-type research for us, and we discovered the average church member was a 65-year-old woman. This was not unusual for a mainline church that had thrived in its community for more than a century.

We were faced with some crucial decisions. We could continue as is, which many churches choose to do. When that 65-year-old woman dies in the next couple of decades or so, the church would fade into history, as many churches have done.

Or, we could take some specific, intentional steps to not only survive, but thrive.

More research revealed that the vast majority of members – including my family – commuted to the inner-city church from the suburbs. When Ames was built in the 1870s, everyone walked. Over time, adjacent houses were torn down and a parking lot was built. The church grew and thrived, topping 1,000 attendees in the early 1960s. By the time my family arrived, attendance was more like 350 to 400 at two Sunday services.

The neighborhood changed; so must the church

And the congregation was aging.

  • Our first decision was the most crucial: Do we move the church to a suburb where many members lived, or do we continue in the city?

God could have used the church either place, but what did He want us to do?

The vote was more divisive than we anticipated: 55 percent to 45 percent. We voted to stay in the city, but not for the right reason. Many longtime members wanted to continue “church” as is. In a world of rapid change, the church was the one solid foundation that stayed the same.

But it couldn’t.

The church would eventually die.

That wasn’t an option.

Even though the vote was close, our pastor at the time took the decision as a mandate to re-connect with our neighborhood. We did a door-to-door survey to assess needs (my wife participated in that).

  • We hired a full-time youth director, even though we had very few active youths at the time.

Why hire a staff person when we didn’t have hardly any young people to attend?

That’s why, actually.

We hired a man to build a youth program from scratch, reaching “church” kids and “neighborhood” kids. In general, the “church” kids had a basic understanding of the Bible, while many “neighborhood” kids did not. That made for – and still makes for – a unique opportunity for ministry, with many successes and failures.

  • We changed the church leadership structure to emphasize ministry and evangelism, and not so much sitting around tables debating issues.
  • We did one more thing that proved to be the most controversial decision of all: We changed the traditional 11 a.m. worship service to a contemporary service. With drums and guitars.

A drum set on the altar is sacrilege to some folks. When you’ve used a hymnbook and organ your entire life, that’s what you’re comfortable with. We kept the 9 a.m. service traditional for them, but some older folks had trouble getting going that early in the morning.

We lost some members over that.

Changing the style, not the message

While the worship style changed, we made one thing clear: The message of the church would not change.

Jon M. Dennis, a pastor in Chicago who helped lead a conference on urban ministry I attended recently, puts it this way:

 

When urban churches are not flexible (usually ending up in decline or closing), it’s often because we’ve confused that which is permanent with that which is transient …

One thing that absolutely doesn’t change is the person and work of our Savior and Lord, for “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8).

Christ + City, p. 178

 

Most of our elderly members bought the vision. They understood that if the church was to survive and even thrive, we had to change our style. We had to connect with a younger crowd. We had to reach out to the transient, lower-economic, multi-ethnic neighborhood that surrounded our building.

The contemporary service worked. The goal wasn’t to bring 1,000 people into the pews, but to do ministry that matters, to develop relationships and connect with people.

Committed to the vision

Some time later, a predominately African-American church in our denomination in Saginaw closed its doors – and merged with ours. Overnight, our congregation became multi-racial as well as multi-ethnic. We welcomed them, not only as members, but as leaders. Several African-Americans took leadership positions in the church. They brought their gospel choir with them, and the Sunday morning music program was greatly enriched as it rotated with the chancel choir and the bell choir (plus the children’s choir).

Sure, there were bumps. Our pastor was 100 percent committed to the merger, and many of us on all sides bought in.

Some didn’t. We couldn’t get discouraged. Those who stayed were committed.

These things happened a decade or two ago. Ames continues to evolve, seeking God’s will in the neighborhood. People have left (including us, due to a job move) and new folks continue to come in.

When our Lorain church opens its doors sometime this spring, we will have the backing of a multi-campus congregation. But Elyria and Avon Lake attendees won’t determine whether the Lorain campus thrives or not.

How committed are we to our neighborhood, to the city?

At least a dozen of us pray on Tuesday mornings for the new church and for people connected with it. That’s just one thing that we’re doing.

We’re off to a great start, even before the building opens.

Urban ministry gets messy, but it also can be extremely rewarding. We’ll see where God leads us.

Re-thinking church in an inner city

I’ve never been involved in a church plant before. There’s plenty of hope and excitement, but we don’t even know all the challenges we will face.

Our multi-campus church is planning to open a new campus in Lorain, Ohio, a self-described “international city” of about 63,000 people on the shores of Lake Erie about 30 miles west of Cleveland. As of 2016, whites comprised 51.7 percent of the city’s population, Hispanics 29.1 percent, blacks 14.5 percent and “two or more races” 3.1 percent.

http://www.city-data.com/city/Lorain-Ohio.html

I’m interested in this because my wife and I raised our three sons at an inner-city church in Saginaw, Michigan, with similar demographics to Lorain. Now that they are grown and on their own, I have more time to devote to this.

To learn more about planting a multi-ethnic church, the Lorain campus pastor and I attended a three-day conference on the topic in Chicago. It was eye-opening.

As a former newspaper guy, I took lots of notes. Here is a summary from the plenary speakers and workshop leaders I heard:

Church and society

If we want to be a multi-ethnic church, then the dominant culture cannot be more than 80 percent of the church. Research shows that if visitors see at least 20 percent of people in their ethnic group attending, then they feel like “members” and not “visitors.”  We should be strategic about seeking 20 percent of an ethnic group if we truly want to be multi-ethnic.

For some people, society does not work – economically, medically, socially, religiously, etc. These people do not trust any institutions. Church plants will take a long time for these people to trust. They may reject institutionalism, even if they hunger for God. To reach them, we might need to change the way we do church – why 11 a.m. services? Why does communion happen weekly or monthly? Etc. These are not wrong, but they are not in the Bible. What’s Biblical, and what’s cultural?

The new national divide is achiever vs. non-achiever. Achievers value the individual; non-achievers value the society. Most non-whites (as well as whites) are achievers. Achievers are mainstream; non-achievers live in the sub-culture.

Doing church

One speaker said white pastors are excellent at “three-point sermons with seven sub-points.” That’s fine, but that’s not how black preachers preach. If we want to reach black people, this might become an issue. Another example: Hispanics will show up late, then they will stay late. That’s their culture. We might need to re-think the way we do church.

moody4

The traditional church model: Meet Jesus, attend church, connect/serve/give, go into the world. This isn’t working; it’s too shallow.

The new model: Meet Jesus, attend church, deep change, go into the world.

How to accomplish deep change? We need to meet emotional, social, intellectual, physical and spiritual needs – all of them.  Which means all of those needs in my life, as a leader, must be met as well, or I will not be an effective leader. The Mary-Martha struggle: When are we focused on our actions at the expense of spending time with Jesus?

This is not a quick fix. It’s hard. It takes time.

Most people in our cities aren’t thinking about repentance, but about where their next meal is coming from. We must disciple them to conversion. We must offer Bible nuggets that people can relate to. “There’s a guy in the Bible who understands what you are going through …” (This means we have to know the Bible well, of course.)

Value in all cultures

Whites frequently will not get involved in a church (or any other organization) unless they lead it. Several speakers made this point. Whites often don’t leave room for other ethnic groups to lead – or if they do, they must follow the examples of whites. We often do this unconsciously.

There is no assimilating into one true culture in heaven. All cultures are good. Faith brings out the best in all of them. Every culture has stories to tell.

How much of church planting is led by whiteness? Most of it. It’s a strange mix of benevolence and oppression. This has become the only story. How do we liberate from whiteness (or any dominant culture)? According to the Bible, we die to it. We are not to assimilate, but to create a new story.

Jesus’ blood is the new story, for all cultures. His death and resurrection is the great equalizer for all of us. Jesus didn’t ask us to become Him. Instead, He became one of us.

Those of us in the dominant culture often forget that we have a culture. Everybody speaks with an accent except me, for example.

Marginalization happens when people are minimized in different ways. Marginalization often leads to oppression, which is defined as sin plus power.

Jesus went to the margins. He was surrounded by sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes and women and children. All of us need to go there, too.

Jesus gave us a table, and all the chairs around it are on the same level. No high chairs and low chairs. Everybody drinks from the same cup, and we share germs. All ethnic groups are equal before God.

History is not over

Blacks’ history is slavery. No other immigrant group can say that. We heard first-person testimonies from several ethnic minorities who have experienced racism in their lifetimes. My wife has a co-worker whose boyfriend is black. He recently was talking with several friends in the parking lot of the apartment complex in Lorain where he lives. Another resident of the apartment complex called the cops on him. His crime? Being black and talking with his friends. It happens still today, even in Lorain.

As white people, we cannot deny that these things happened, and are still happening. If we want to reach this population for Christ, we need to meet them where they are.

Perceptions

lasalle street

Another cultural difference: Whites often see themselves as a collection of individuals. Blacks see themselves as a community. This is crucial to understanding how we communicate differently.

For example, a white police officer in Houston recently killed a black man in his own apartment. Blacks wanted the world to feel his suffering and pain. They wanted pastors to talk about that the following Sunday. Our reaction as whites? We want more facts. Give us the details of what happened before we react.

This is huge. We must understand this difference.

Critique the culture

Cities – with density and proximity – amplify the opposition to the gospel.

There is little social pressure anymore to attend church. There are four basic religious beliefs, but some Americans don’t even have these:

  1. There is a god.
  2. There is moral truth.
  3. There is sin.
  4. There is an afterlife.

How do we evangelize in this setting?

We must critique the culture. The standards our culture offers don’t work. If your career is your primary motivator in life, what happens when – not if, but when – you lose it? If it’s to be a good person, you’ll never be good enough (maybe you haven’t committed adultery, but have you lusted? This is Jesus’ standard.) If it’s freedom, you aren’t, and you know it. If you live for money, you’ll never have enough. If you seek beauty, you’ll never feel beautiful. And on and on.

But if you serve Jesus, you’ll get forgiveness when you fail.

There are no merit-based scholarships in heaven. Only grace.

Also, there is no defense against:

  1. Prayers of the saints.
  2. Love of the saints.
  3. Wise application of the word of God to your concerns.