I visited an adult class at Iowa Falls UMC on Sunday, December 15th. The class has been using A Place at the Table as a guide to really look at poverty and food insecurity in Hardin County, IA. They asked me to come share about ministries other churches are doing which “go deeper” than meeting direct needs through food pantries and the Food Bank of Iowa’s Backpack Buddies program.
Because the Iowa Board of Church and Society has identified hunger, obesity and other diseases of poverty as key points for world changing mission in Iowa communities, I invited a couple of board members, Jane Edwards and Rev. Brian Carter, to join me. The new Social Action Mission Coordinator for United Methodist Women, Rita Carter, also came along.
Iowa Falls is a town of around 5,200 residents and is home to Ellsworth Community College. It’s downtown area has large stone and brick buildings, many built in the late 1890’s and early 20th Century. Google directions will try to send you the wrong way down a one way street to get to Iowa Falls UMC, but it is still fairly easy to find on the corner of Hickory and Main Streets. It is a large building, with an easy drop off and awning for the main entrance. Cars were parked for about 2 blocks in all directions from the church, so I parked in front of a neighborhood house and walked in.
Walking in the front entrance, you are met by a large, open space with round tables, and people serving coffee and taking coats to hang along the walls. Directly to the left is a ramp, which I assume leads to the Sanctuary. A man in a grey suit gave me a friendly nod and smile as I walked through the fellowship hall. The first service was just ending, so I saw acolytes exiting with their candle tapers, and recognized from their robes and the robed adult leader with them, that the early service is a formal worship setting.
As I moved into the space, more church members were leaving worship and I saw several men in suits, while most women were dressed in very nice clothes. I did not see a lot of sweaters, jeans, or even khakis on people I passed. This worship crowd was old-school. There were clear signs indicating where restrooms, offices, and classrooms were. I entered a washroom which was modern in style, though small.
I then headed upstairs toward where my directions said the class was meeting. Up two flights of stairs into an older hallway of yellow-painted concrete block, and I had found the Sunday School area of the church. School tile floors and smallish rooms were quite a bit less modern than the lower levels of the church. The class was meeting in a room at the very end of the hallway.
The room looked like many youth group spaces look with two distinct sections: an open space just inside the door, and a conversation space at the far end made up of several couches lined up along the walls, a white board, windows looking out over town, and a coffee table. My colleagues had already arrived and we spent some time introducing ourselves to one another. The class was multi-generational and included a high school student with blue-dyed hair, as well as professional people in their mid-30’s or40’s, and some folks who were retired. There was at least one member of the choir who attends the class. As we waited for others to arrive, the class members shared that there had been an issue with the boiler overnight and so the upper rooms of the church were not yet warmed up. That meant we kept our coats on for the conversation.
Rev. Carol E. Myers got the class rolling by summarizing the study the group had been doing, and then introducing me. I opened by sharing a little about myself and then invited Rita, Brian, and Jane to share about themselves.
For the next 45 minutes, members of the class shared their concerns about the number of people they encounter in their day-to-day lives who quite simply are not making it. They shared about hungry children, and adults who seem to lack fairly basic life skills such as an ability to do arithmetic or to cook. There was a kind of painful intensity to the compassionate awareness of need expressed by people in the room.
The class members agreed that the church was doing all right when it came to meeting direct needs, but this group is hungry to do more than that. They want to become part of ministries which help people help themselves, and they want to educate the wider Hardin County community about the very real shortfalls of social services, education and employment opportunities county-wide. One woman is even ready to start doing advocacy work with the local government. One member of the class, who is also an administrator in the School District, raised the question of meeting spiritual needs as well as physical and financial needs.
I kept thinking, I hope we can find a way to turn all of this loose. There was so much energy, and so much awareness of missional possibility, people literally had a hard time sitting still. They would lean forward to talk with us. A couple of people tried to speak at once about their experiences with clients at the food pantry. Jane was able to share about Food@First, Good Neighbor Emergency Assistance and AMOS in Ames-about the different models of engaging with issues of hunger, homelessness and community organizing that seem to be working best there. Brian and Rita shared from their experiences serving churches about different ministries for addressing issues of poverty. There was no lack of ideas nor of issues that could be addressed.
I could tell that the people in the room had been turned on. They had been motivated and awakened by the leadership of Rev. Myers, the different kinds of expertise shared in the group, and the A Place at the Table curriculum. My colleagues and I were encouraged to hear that others in the Conference are looking at and thinking about the same kinds of issues we have been looking at and thinking about. Connections were made: emails and phone numbers exchanged, names added to the lists of people who are interested in pursuing social change for the sake of the Gospel.
As Rev. Myers closed the conversation, she mentioned that, beginning in January, the class would spend time discerning where God was calling them to take action. As she prayed for us, I was praying for the group that it will start to bring its vision into focus; that it will be able to distill its call from the huge range of possibilities being broadcast.
As my mother says, “Don’t try to eat the whole elephant at once. You have to take it a bite at a time.” The size, scope and yeast-like nature of poverty in our neighborhoods is daunting. It can be discouraging and defeating to try to take on the whole thing. Instead, it is better to take one step at a time in one direction, and to address the challenges as they come. Spiritual discernment is a great and a necessary very next step to take. Also, finding friends to join you in your mission and lend their support and aid never hurts.