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Donations to churches drop, need for help increases

URBANA '“ Ben Hoerr, executive pastor of The Vineyard Church in Urbana, shuffles through a stack of applications from church members seeking financial help.

"I need help with rent,' one congregant writes. "I'm short $300. Husband lost his unemployment, and his new job has been rained out.'Another request says, "I'm about to be evicted due to two months past rent. I just started a new job and am struggling to keep my home.'

"Need $43 for a car part, as I have no other transportation,' implores another.

"I need a refill on my meds as soon as possible,' another church member writes.

 

The Vineyard, like other churches throughout Champaign County, has seen a huge increase in the number of congregants and community members seeking aid since the economic downturn began in 2007. Because of the recession, some churches also are receiving less money in the offering plates on Sunday morning, forcing them to curtail and even cancel assistance programs for the poor.

Since 2007, appeals for benevolence have skyrocketed and continue to climb at The Vineyard, Hoerr said. The Vineyard, one of the largest churches in Champaign County, receives 20 applications a month from church members.

"If you roll the clock back two or three years ago, we might process one or two applications a month,' Hoerr said. " I think it just reflects the state of the economy, the state of the culture, the continued marginalization of the poor [and] a new emerging class of poor '“ what was formerly the middle class that are now unemployed with skills '“ and they don't have anywhere to turn.'

Hoerr said the need has become so overwhelming that the church's leaders decided they could afford to offer direct assistance only to church members, though it still contributes to charitable organizations and missions and runs a food pantry.

At Stone Creek Church in Urbana, a food pantry that was feeding 150 families a week is closing temporarily while the church considers how to fund it. Erica Burks, assistant director of the food pantry, said tithing by congregation members has declined, making less money available for assistance programs.

"Our [church] members are also members of the community who have been hit by the economy also,' Burks said.

On a recent Monday morning, people began lining up for the food pantry two hours before the church doors open. Brenda Romack, a certified nursing assistant who lives in Urbana, comes to the food bank every Monday.

"All the prices are going up; everything is going up except for wages and it's impossible to make ends meet,' said Romack, who earns $9.28 an hour. "My rent is $750 a month. I pay almost $300 a month for lights and gas, water is about $70 and I've got a sewer bill which is another $25, and of course, gas in my vehicle and insurance. It don't leave a whole heck of a lot.'

In the past two years, requests for assistance with rent, utilities, clothes and medicine have more than doubled, said Ricky Spindler, student ministries pastor at Stone Creek.

"It's gone off the roof,' he said.

People who attend the church receive first priority, he said, but the church also tries to help community members.

"We believe we have a responsibility spiritually to teach the word but practically to meet the needs of the people around us,' Spindler said.

As state social services dwindle, churches are trying to fill the gap, said the Rev. Claude Shelby Sr., of Salem Baptist Church in Champaign.

"Agencies are sending people our way,' he said. "We try to do what we can, although the funds are not always there.'

At Salem, a benevolence committee meets to hear requests from people who have lost their jobs, people who are awaiting disability checks, people whose water has been shut off.

"Hardly a week passes that we don't have a meeting,' he said.

He's particularly concerned about elderly people in the community who are living on the economic edge.

"And this year, people didn't get an increase in their Social Security,' he added.

Churches contribute significantly to social service programs in their communities.

The average North American congregation contributes about $184,000 per year to local social services, according to a study published in the 2002 book, The Invisible Caring Hand: American Congregations and the Provision of Welfare.

"If you removed the influence and benefit of evangelical, Protestant and Catholic churches, if that component of goodwill were to disappear, America would be much worse off,' Hoerr said.

Yet, as the need increases, churches have less money to help.

"We have a lot of people (in the congregation) affected by the recession,' Hoerr said."People are saying the recession is over. I'd like to invite them to Champaign-Urbana because our community hasn't experienced that yet.'

¨ Copyright 2011 CU-CitizenAccess.