Stan Friedman is news editor for the Department of Communications.
Monroe Covenant Church in Washington operates Take the Next Step, a nonprofit next door to the church that helps people who are homeless access shelter, education, emergency assistance, and medical care. The program also offers parenting classes for teens, mentoring, space for kids to do homework, and movie nights. The church alternates with other congregations in serving as a shelter in the winter months.
Monroe Covenant Church has sixty-eight members and is located in a community of 17,000 people.
Evangelical Covenant Church in Ceresco, Nebraska, works with three other congregations in its community of 1,000 people to fill the backpacks of needy elementary students with ingredients for meals each Friday. “The kids who qualify often don’t get a decent meal on the weekend because the only good meals they receive are ‘free and reduced’ lunches at school,” says pastor Jodi DeYoung Moore.
Those two churches are among many Covenant congregations in rural areas that are helping to lead their communities in addressing needs that have long been considered largely urban problems. Churches are assisting the homeless, feeding and clothing neighbors, offering counseling, and providing safe community activities.
In many rural areas, the local churches are a key part of the safety net. The Monroe church hosted a community dinner and raffle for the homeless in the area. Items in the raffle included gift cards, tents, sleeping bags, tarps, blankets, winter clothing, and hygiene kits.
The dinner did more than offer a meal and needed items—it also helped attract people who might not otherwise have been counted during the county’s annual census of the homeless. Obtaining an accurate count of those who are homeless is difficult—people do not necessarily seek out shelters, choosing instead to live in their cars or remain in seclusion. It is also very important, since the amount of government assistance available to help the homeless is based in large part on the census. (For more on Take the Next Step, go to its website.)
Churches such as the Ceresco congregation are taking multiple approaches to addressing hunger. Roughly 24 percent of children in rural areas are considered food insecure. Yet a high percentage of children are overweight or are unhealthy because the declining number of grocery stores has meant a dramatic reduction in availability of healthy foods.
In addition to packing backpacks with meal ingredients, the Ceresco congregation grows produce in an organic garden, all of which is given away to needy families. Other congregations urge members and community residents to contribute at least 10 percent of the produce from their gardens to local food banks.
“People can drop through the cracks in any country and find food basics hard to access,” says Ray Baloun, a member of Evangelical Covenant Church in Minnedosa, Manitoba. “It can be even more demoralizing when there is obvious abundant food everywhere they look.”
Baloun organizes the church’s Christmas dinner, which raises at least $2,000 to help the local food bank. “God doesn’t want hungry people anywhere. He didn’t design the world that way,” he says. “God did design us with hands and feet to help people like this everywhere. More importantly he gives us eyes that we often need to open wider and use more wisely to see people in need and to see how we can help. One person can help, one person can motivate others, one person can make a difference.”
Canadian farmers connected with Covenant congregations are making a difference around the world through the Kernels of Hope project Baloun initiated in 2005. The project has now raised more than $2 million to help their counterparts in South Sudan, Liberia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Farmers in several Canadian provinces donate their time to grow wheat and canola crops on a portion of their land that is set aside to be “purchased” by virtual farmer donors. Those donations pay the costs of rent, seed, chemicals, insurance, and custom work.
When the crops are sold, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) matches the grain sales revenue on a four-to-one ratio to reach the final donation amount. That money is distributed to recipients through the Canadian Food Grains Bank and World Relief Canada.
The donated funds supply high-quality seeds, farm implements, and other items. To read a previous Covenant News Service story that featured Kendell Arndt, a member of Evangelical Covenant Church in Melfort, Saskatchewan, who contributed land even though he wasn’t a farmer, click here.
The Evangelical Covenant Church in Pomeroy, Iowa, has worked with Covenant missionaries to help Christian agriculture businessmen in Southeast Asia. Part of that assistance included dismantling and shipping a fifty-seven-foot grain auger donated by a church member. The auger greatly increased production.
Covenant congregations in some rural communities are providing access to counseling services that otherwise would be unavailable. At Community Covenant Church in Osage City, Kansas, 25 percent of staff member Jeff King’s time is dedicated to offering free counseling to local residents.
“The bulk of those who make appointments are people who don’t attend our church, and many don’t attend any church,” says King, who has a master’s degree in family therapy.
He receives referrals from a variety of sources including a domestic abuse counselor. “Many victims are wanting to be able to visit with someone about the spiritual nature of the problems they are facing, but who are concerned about being shamed for what they’ve experienced,” King says.
Other area ministers also provide referrals, and some have sought his assistance as well. “One of the greatest experiences is being able to work with other pastors in the area,” King says. “I have several who have sought me out to discuss their own personal and marital struggles. They have expressed their need for a spiritual companion they can trust with their story.”
Other congregations are involved in creative, contextualized outreach ministries in their settings. Mission Covenant Church in Poplar, Wisconsin, has hosted a Hunter’s Expo for fifteen years that attracts up to 1,200 people. The free event includes wildlife mounts, vendor booths, wild game food, and door prizes. The goal is to help promote safe, ethical hunting in the area, as well as provide a connecting point for congregants and other area residents.
John Wenrich, the Covenant’s director of congregational vitality, says he is excited about the ministry happening in rural congregations. He notes that more of them are participating in the vitality pathway that helps churches chart a way of going forward to better minister to others.
“There are no small places in the kingdom of God,” he says.