The church and recession
Local conference shows ministers eager to try to meet challenge of tough fiscal times
BY CLIFF NEWELL
The Lake Oswego Review, Aug 6, 2009
VERN UYETAKE / LAKE OSWEGO REVIEW
Dr. Cecilia Ranger served as moderator for “Blessed Are The Poor” at Marylhurst University on July 30. Twenty-four local church representatives talked about how to make their ministries more effective.
Food, clothing, shelter, financial advice, healing of the poor in spirit. Conquering fear.
In ways both basic and unusual, the church community of Lake Oswego and West Linn is rising to meet the demands of economic hardship not seen in the U.S. in 70 years.
This was made quite evident at the conference “Blessed Are The Poor,” held at Marylhurst University last Thursday.
Sister Carol Higgins of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary “called every church I could think of” in Lake Oswego and West Linn, and the response was heartening: 24 representatives of local churches gathered to talk about how they are dealing with the recession.
They did have some sad stories to tell. But the overwhelming feeling that emerged is that this is a time of blessing. The response of the church to the economic emergency has been quick and strong.
“We have a shelter ministry,” said Libby Boatwright, associate pastor of Lake Grove Presbyterian Church. “Homeless people were living in their cars in freezing weather, and we provided them motels, food and help to find housing.”
In some cases, it is simply amazing what some local churches are offering to people suffering from the recession. Boatwright provided two sheets detailing 11 programs now available at Lake Grove Presbyterian, while Julie Messenger, representing Riverwest Church of Lake Oswego, had an elaborate brochure called “the brown book” that details an extraordinary missionary effort right here at home.
It helps not only those in need but those who are giving.
“Our pastor Guy Gray said our outreach to people in poverty has helped us put the current distress in perspective,” Messenger said. “We tend to get inwardly focused, and it helps to reach out to others.
“Our congregation started a donation drive, and donations poured in. People really wanted to help, but they didn’t know how. They want to know, they really do.”
Such programs help eager-to-help church members see the hungry and homeless not as “people way off in the distance.”
The Rev. John Dotson of Lake Bible Church has assembled a 70-member strong team to minister at the Union Gospel Mission in downtown Portland.
“We’re doing more than serving,” Dotson said. “We’re seeing the value of our work to the individual we’re serving. Our volunteers sit down at tables with these people so they can see they are valued.”
Truly opportunities for service are abundant.
Matt Cato, director of the Office of Justice and Peace of the Archdiocese of Portland, said, “Four years ago our food program used to get one guest at the First United Methodist Church. Now it’s packed, and we’ve expanded it to two nights a week. It’s the only place between Beaverton and Hillsboro where you can get a hot meal.”
Hard times can bring churches together.
Mary Brunette of Our Lady of the Lake in Lake Oswego said, “We’re working with six or seven churches to provide houses for families in transition and let moms and kids get back on their feet. It’s a great collaborative effort.”
Perhaps no story at the conference brought home the need of the times like one told by a member of West Linn’s Emmanuel Presbyterian Church, co-pastored by Paul and Cathy Quackenbush.
“We probably would not have had our home in the summer if it hadn’t been for Paul and Cathy,” she said. “I knew we weren’t going to make it. My husband had been trying so hard to find a job and just could not.”
The woman had been interviewed by OPB about her family’s experience, and she vividly expressed the worst aspect of sudden financial crisis.
“Before I hadn’t experienced the type of fear that pours into people,” she said. “It starts in the morning when you brush your teeth. When you’re doing laundry, you ask, ‘How can I buy laundry soap?’ It’s a constant fear all of the time.”
It is a fear that is new to the Lake Oswego and West Linn area. As Father Rick Ganz of the Society of Jesuits, pointed out, these are not the “professional poor” of areas less well off, who know “the agencies and nice places to go.”
This is a condition that makes reaching out to them especially difficult.
“What I’m seeing is families who don’t look like they’re in trouble,” Messenger said.
Boatwright said, “It’s a point of shame for them to say, ‘I have to admit I’m in trouble.’ This experience pours them into a lower strata of society. Part of the problem is they didn’t see it coming.”
“The major challenge in Lake Oswego is that people are in need, but they won’t come forward,” Brunette said. “They’ve been successful, but something has happened to them.
“This is something that is really very hidden. There is more than meets the eye when you’re driving down the street in Lake Oswego. But when you help people who are gun-shy about being helped, it builds on itself.”
“The shame element, the silence,” said Laura Howard, who is seeking a master’s of divinity degree at Marylhurst. “That’s our culture. You don’t let people know you’re in trouble.”…
“This isn’t just physical poverty,” Boatwright said. “It’s poverty of the spirit. People don’t know where to ask for help. But the church is a place of hope. We’re here to do something different. We’re trying to organize a whole new thing. How can we get people away from the humiliation?”
“With people in Lake Oswego and West Linn there are many professionals who have lost jobs,” said Higgins. “The whole issue is shame. Confidence is really critical.”
One thing local people suffering from financial hardship can be confident about is that the church is willing and able to help. In fact, right at the conference tables, plans were made to meet again to talk about ways to make the church more effective.
“My first goal is to bring hope back,” Messenger said. “I want to bring back a fighting spirit.”
“The church might be the last straw for people,” Boatwright said. “Our job is that we’re not going to let you down.”
The Blessed Are The Poor conference was organized by Dr. Sheila O’Connell-Roussell of Marylhurst University Ministry.