Emergency grants inspire churches to target their neighbors' needs

Emergency grants inspire churches to target their neighbors' needs

Benton United Methodist Church shares a cookout with a mobile-home park in March, shortly before stay-at-home orders. From left to right: Donna Calhoun, Tepa Bigham, Jacky Calhoun, and Kim Farner.

When the pandemic shut down businesses and sent people to shelter in their homes, some people thought about stockpiling toilet paper and food for themselves.

United Methodist congregations throughout Holston Conference thought about neighbors whose lives were suddenly going to get a lot harder and how they could help.

To help churches provide food, pay utility bills, and meet other needs, the Holston Foundation offered to provide “emergency response” grants on March 20. Since then, the Foundation has awarded $58,050 to 58 United Methodist ministries and churches throughout Holston.

Benton United Methodist Church will use its $1,000 grant to help families pay their electric bills. Lay leader Arthur Bigham said the idea occurred to the congregation after they “adopted” a nearby mobile-home park.

“When this coronavirus business came up, we realized some were going to have trouble paying their bills,” says Bigham. “It got us to thinking that people might have to make a choice between buying food or keeping their lights on.”

Benton members worked out an arrangement with Volunteer Energy Cooperative: When customers face disconnection after the grace period, they will be referred to Benton United Methodist Church. “Then we’ll make arrangements to help them,” said Bigham.

Paul Bowman, executive director, said the Foundation designated $50,000 from reserves for the emergency response grants when the pandemic became a reality for churches like Benton.  

“I asked myself, ‘How can the Foundation equip and empower whatever is put on the hearts of the local church?’ Because I knew the local church would respond,” Bowman said.

Numerous churches applied for the grants, sending $126,000 total in requests to the Foundation’s office in Alcoa, Tennessee. “We reduced the amount of each grant so that we could offer them to more groups,” Bowman said.

Forty-two of the 58 grants were awarded for food-related ministries. East Stone Gap United Methodist Church applied for a grant to provide $100 Food City gift cards to families dealing with unemployment. So far, the church in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, has given out 40 gift cards, says the Rev. Brad Stapleton.
Sack lunches at Rocky Top UMC

“After we provided for seven church members who are out of work, we went out into the community,” he said.

Church leaders asked their members, “Who do you know who lost their job?” Recipients included dental hygienists, teacher aides, census workers, restaurant and salon employees. Most sent emails thanking the church for its generosity, Stapleton said.

East Stone Gap received a $1,000 grant from the Foundation. The additional money came from the church budget, Stapleton said. “All of our in-person ministries are canceled, so we have extra funds to divert to other ministries."

Dublin United Methodist Church also saw a need for a food ministry in Pulaski County, Virginia. When the schools shut down in March, the Dublin church was one of the locations for the county’s distribution of food to families.

“The first day the program was opened, over 50 children were served,” said the Rev. Don Hanshew. “On April 1, more than 220 children were served, making it the largest site in the county.”

Knowing the school feeding program would cease in May, Dublin applied for a grant to provide a three-meal mix of prepared and packaged foods every Sunday morning beginning June 7.

Dublin received a $1,000 grant from the Foundation. Hanshew estimates the ministry will cost $1,000 a week to feed 300 people. The church has already received an additional $8,000 in donations to fund the new ministry.

Other congregations were also inspired to forge creative ways to love their neighbors. White Oak United Methodist Church is using its $1,000 grant to build and stock a “community blessing cabinet.”

According to Charla Bobbitt, the White Oak congregation came up with the cabinet as a way to continue an ongoing ministry with the homeless after the pandemic necessitated limits on physical contact.
Pre-pandemic: White Oak's homeless ministry

“We were really struggling with, ‘How can we continue to meet this need?’” said Bobbitt, whose church is located in Red Bank, Tennessee. The cabinet will include the most requested items, such as shoes, socks, blankets, and reading glasses.

In Johnson City, Tennessee, First United Methodist Church created a ministry for 46 families without internet access. Stephen Gross explained that many people can’t participate in online worship because they don’t have computers or can’t afford wifi in their homes.

A $1,000 grant from the Foundation is enabling the Johnson City church to print and mail Sunday sermons, worship guides, and newsletters to those families.

“We’re also providing food baskets to families in the worst shape, because we know they don’t receive unemployment [benefits],” Gross said.

In Rocky Top, Tennessee, two churches have united to help the homeless who sleep in the woods near Rocky Top United Methodist Church.

First United Methodist Church in Knoxville applied for a grant to help Rocky Top feed their neighbors. The Knoxville church is 30 miles away from Rocky Top. The pastor of First United Methodist learned about Rocky Top’s ministries during a district meeting.

The Rev. Dave Henderson, Rocky Top pastor, said the homeless people in his area have told him, “We’re starving ... You guys are the only place that are feeding anybody.” Because the regular free meals provided by churches and agencies have shut down during the pandemic, the hungry come knocking on the church doors for sandwiches.

Rocky Top is now feeding between 20 and 40 people with bagged sandwich meals each week, as well as about 90 families with sack lunches and bags of groceries on the last Sunday of the month. Debbie Greenwood, member of the Knoxville church, said her congregation is using their $1,000 grant, along with food donations and $1,800 in cash donations, to help keep the Rocky Top church supplied.

“We were so excited when we got the grant because we were able to do more,” said Greenwood. “God does work his wonders.”

Rocky Top United Methodist also applied for and received a $1,000 grant, said Henderson. “Without the Foundation and First Knoxville church, a lot of people in Rocky Top wouldn’t be eating as well as they are."

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Holston Conference includes 864 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.


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Annette Spence

Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.