Northwest Arkansas churches have seen and responded to the increased need for community aid since 2008, when the ongoing recession began.
Faithful in their traditional and critical role of helping their communities endure during hard times, parishioners across the Ozarks have helped orchestrate food and clothing drives, as well as assist the needy with rent and utilities, donations of sleeping bags and tents, and even funds for gasoline and prescription medicine for the homeless and working poor.
“Volunteerism is the core of what we do,” said David Conrad, pastor of Bella Vista Christian Church. “Churches play an important role in organizing resources for the less fortunate. At the heart of religion is selflessness, community service and the act of giving.”
Charitable giving is a strong tradition among Muslims, with beneficiaries including the poor, students, travelers or those in need of emergency services. The congregation of The Islamic Center of Northwest Arkansas emphasizes a true sense of volunteerism and community.
“ICNWA provides emergency funds, helps people find work, uses existing social services available and, in times of natural disasters, makes special appeals for support,” said M. Ali Sadiqi, the center’s outreach director. “Through outreach to other faith communities, we have built important links to help us serve all those in need to our area.”
Congregation Etz Chaim is a small Jewish synagogue in Bentonville that uses donations to help those in need. For example, it was able to fund a water deposit for a battered woman moving out on her own and a rental deposit for another person.
Most aid-minded congregations in the region focus on basic needs and provide a meal at least once a week. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville added a commercial kitchen to accommodate community meals. Attendees are welcome to enjoy a nutritious meal and beverages without having to provide an explanation of their need.
St. Paul’s and Central United Methodist Church, also in Fayetteville, have partnered to offer hot lunches four days a week. Meals are served noon-12:30 p.m. Monday and Wednesday at the Episcopal church, and 11:30 a.m.-noon Tuesday and Thursday at the Methodist church.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase in numbers at the community meals,” said Rev. Lowell Grisham of St. Paul’s. “Moreso, there is a considerable increase in attendance at the day center due to the recession.”
The Seven Hills Day Center at 1555 Martin Luther King Blvd. in Fayetteville offers showers, laundry machines, food, coffee, clothing and case management. Computer and telephone access is available to contact job references and potential employers.
Area churches and aid agencies often join forces to be more effective. The Cooperative Emergency Outreach is a group of 21 churches that offer emergency assistance to
people living south of Northwest Arkansas Mall in Fayetteville.
Fully staffed by volunteers for 20 years, the facility has a limited cash allowance per day, so financial aid is granted on a first-come, first-served basis. Local businesses have partnered with the outreach group to assist in the distribution of clothes, gasoline, prescription medicines and utilities. There is a food pantry on site that includes ready-to-eat items for the homeless.
Anabelle Steelman-Berry, publicity chairman and daily manager of CEO, said the recession has prompted a noticeable increase in need. Demand also rises during the summer months, when children are not in school.
“Although requests are restricted to three times in six months for food and gas, and once every six months for rent and utilities, the demand remains constant,” Steelman-Berry said.
The Samaritan Community Center, a nonprofit with locations in Springdale and Rogers, has seen demand for its services rise by 53 percent over the past two years. The center offers a food pantry, thrift store vouchers, case management and counseling. Meals are served 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday in Springdale, and Tuesday through Thursday in Rogers.
Through its Snackpacks for Kids program, each Friday the center distributes packages containing 8-10 healthy weekend snacks for elementary-aged children. About 3,500 of the Snackpacks go out each week to children in Benton, Carroll, Madison and Washington counties.
Feeding the Whole Person
Two years ago, a handful of Bethel Baptist Church members realized the need and created a food pantry serving Bethel Heights. Open from 9-11 a.m. every Tuesday, food is provided for up to 50 people. The basic food requirements are met, and specialty items such as meats are distributed as available. At Easter and Thanksgiving, the entire community is invited to enjoy full meals.
Hygiene items also are available at times.
In addition to the food pantry, Bethel Baptist provides an optional prayer counseling session.
“It is vital for the whole person to be addressed — not just with food to feed the hunger, but emotionally and spiritually,” Pastor Mike McEuen said.
When essential resources are limited, the natural response is stress and loss of hope, McCuen said, adding that churches can provide respite for those struggling to survive.
The Fellowship of Northwest Arkansas was founded in 2008 by a group of Northwest Arkansas families dedicated to putting faith into action. Initiatives include the Cobblestone Project, a group whose goal is “to create a community without need.”
“We work to connect the dots between needs and resources in our area,” said Katelyn Graves, operations director. “Although we are not a faith-based organization, we partner with local churches who care about our community and use their influence in a positive way to create a better world.”
The Cobblestone Project has a variety of programs. The Farm is 10 acres that is cultivated to provide fresh vegetables, along with education in gardening and substance-living. Half of the food from The Farm is donated to Potter’s House, Samaritan Community Center, Seven Hills Homeless Center, Helping Hands and Lifesource.
Another program, Laundry Love, provides access to laundromats for impoverished people.
The Our Step program provides affordable housing in hopes of breaking the cycle of homelessness and domestic violence.
Homeless Count Up
According to annual surveys by the University of Arkansas Community and Family Institute, the number of homeless people in Benton and Washington counties grew from 1,287 in 2009 to 2,001 in 2011. This year’s survey also found that the average length of time spent homeless was five months, and that 73 percent reported it was their first time to be homeless in at least three years.
South Church assists the homeless by collecting and distributing tents and sleeping bags.
“It’s hard to see the need that’s in this very rich area and not do anything about it,” said church member Ann Baker. “Once you get involved in this kind of ministry, it changes your life. The people we can help end up giving us so much more than we can offer them.
“We want to be sure that minimally, they have a place to sleep and stay warm. We feed them a meal and tell them about the Lord.”
South Church is one of many churches and community groups that works with Life Source to provide a community meal at 5:30 p.m. on Sundays at 602 S. School Ave. in Fayetteville.