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From a Local Pastor: 'I Feel Overwhelmed By What Would Happen if These Cuts Go Through'
Just as Jesus fed 5,000 with just five loaves of bread and two fish, one congregation, Peace Lutheran Church in Rogers, AR, is feeding more than 18,000 people a year through their food pantry. With only 375 members, this small church packs a powerful punch when it comes to combatting hunger in their region, which is experiencing widespread rural poverty that extends into four states: Arkansas, southern Missouri, southeast Kansas, and eastern Oklahoma.
Rev. Paul Theiss pastors Peace Lutheran Church and signed Bread for the World’s recent petition to Congress that says churches cannot shoulder the burden of protecting poor and hungry people alone. When signing the petition, Rev. Theiss left this comment: “Our congregation, Peace Lutheran Church, fed over 18,000 people during 2011 through our food pantry and additional children through our subsidized preschool and childcare center. We might have to close our youth and music ministries to find enough money to feed the many more who would come looking for food help.”
I called Paul Theiss to ask him about his ministry, the unique needs in his community, and how an added cost of $50,000 a year to help poor and hungry people would impact his church. Read our conversation below:
We have 375 baptized members and our average worship attendance is about 150. We operate the largest and highest-rated Christian preschool and learning center in Rogers, AR, which takes children from 6 months to kindergarten, and is partially subsidized by federal funds for working poor parents through the state of Arkansas.
Our pantry fed 18,000 people in 2011 and we spend $20,000 to $25,000 a year on food. We also receive many in-kind donations from members, local businesses, restaurants, and friends in the community.
Have you noticed increased need in the recent years since the economic recession?
Compared to the rest of Arkansas, this area has very low unemployment, but it’s surrounded by a large area of rural poverty that extends into four states. Many of the jobs here are minimum wage, which doesn’t support a household. So it’s very common to see people working two or three jobs and still not making it. You might say they are one car breakdown or sick child away from an empty pantry.
Could you share the story of one particular food pantry participant who stands out to you?
One young lady who worships regularly with us has an infant child. She is a single mom and works at a local restaurant, and has her child in our infant care center. She receives food stamps, WIC, and subsidized childcare. Her family also helps her. She is very intelligent and capable and faithful, but she’s living on the edge. And she would be among those affected by the recent cuts enacted by the House of Representatives.
What was your response to the news that the House voted to cut funding to programs for poor and hungry people?
A sense of disbelief. Our representative is the former mayor of our town and he certainly knows the situation here, and I can’t believe that he would be responding to the need in such a way. So that’s the disbelief part of it.
I also feel overwhelmed when I think about what would happen if these cuts go through. The figure that’s put out there by Bread for the World is that every congregation would have to come up with $50,000 more per year [if House cuts are enacted]. Well, that’s an average. And for a place like Peace Lutheran Church, we’re talking about an exponential growth in need.
What is your greatest concern?
Sometimes when I park my car and walk up to the church door, I think about what it would be like if people were standing in line around the corner waiting for the pantry to open and not having enough to give them.
Where do you find hope?
That’s easy. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. You can’t imagine a more hopeless situation than the death of Christ, and yet God brought something wonderful and powerful out of that.
The faith of the people I see who are involved in this ministry gives me hope as well. There was an anonymous note here that was given to one of our food pantry volunteers and I got a copy of it. It said:
“I’m sorry I didn’t know your name, but last month when my sister and I came to the food bank, we got here real early, and we were just sitting in my car waiting. You came out and told us to go ahead and come in. You didn’t know it, but our nephew had been in a really bad car accident. He lives with me and had just been here a few days. I needed to go ahead and do food banks, and he knew I had my cell phone and could reach me if needed. You really took a load of worry off me and my sister. God bless you, and thank you. K--- and J---”
So that’s just a touching thing when you think about how many people this volunteer has to deal with every day and he’s unemployed himself.
Jeannie Choi is associate editor at Bread for the world. Follow her on Twitter @jeanniechoi.
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