GATLINBURG, Tenn. – In this town of pancake restaurants and souvenir shops, it’s easy to miss the occasional rundown old motel. The tourists drive or walk past, unaware of the misery existing within yards of their mini golf games and ice cream cones.
The red van from First United Methodist Church, however, does not drive past. Every Tuesday afternoon, the van pulls into eight or nine weed-infested parking lots. The driver blows the horn, and the people and dogs spill out from their broken porches and dark rooms.
“Are you coming tomorrow night?”
While the rest of the First Methodist crew hands out free groceries, the Rev. Jane Taylor is quick with a smile and a hug. She knows most of the residents by name, and when she invites them to church, it’s like she’s inviting them to Aunt Jane’s for supper.
On a big night in this vacation town, 35,000 visitors sleep in 11,000 hotel rooms, cabins, and condominiums, according to the Gatlinburg Chamber of Commerce. But the people served by the First United Methodist Church are not on vacation, and they don't have maid service. Many struggle with unemployment and addictions. Yet they crowd entire families into has-been hotel rooms with weekly rates, because other housing is so expensive and they can't save enough money to go anywhere else.
"There's so much poverty here, for a town with so much wealth," says Mike Poe, a member of First United Methodist.
The Tuesday-afternoon ministry known as "Bread of Life" not only offers food, friendship, and invitations to church, but has recently expanded into a larger ecumenical effort with two other congregations. The goal is to help what church members say is the forgotten Gatlinburg population: Those who come expecting work to be plentiful, but often end up hungry and unemployed in a resort city with inflated property values.
"Whenever they earn any money, they have to spend it all on their rent. So there's nothing left to buy anything else," says Taylor.
Taylor has been appointed to First United Methodist for the past two years, but Bread of Life was founded about six years ago when the Rev. Eric Rieger was pastor -- when the church made "an intentional effort to be community minded," says Taylor. Since then, Bread of Life has become more critically needed as the economy has worsened.
"The jobs are few because this town is flooded with people looking for work," says Poe, who leads the Bread of Life. "If we don't find them, they find us, because word travels in these motels."
Surrounded by the Great Smoky Mountains, Sevier County had a workforce of about 40,000 in 2007, according to the Tennessee Department of Labor. Since then, the county's unemployment rate has increased from 5.7 to 9.7 percent.
Some of the weekly motel residents do find jobs, but they compete for fewer openings at a time when the U.S. hotel industry reported an 18.7 percent drop in revenue in the first half of 2009.
"It's going to get better soon, because the college students are going back to school," says David, age 57, who arrived three weeks ago from Hollywood, Fla.
David is not employed yet, although today he put in applications at a store warehouse and an amusement park ride.
However, David has already visited First United Methodist Church, along with his two companions, Ed and Bob. In addition to Sunday morning services, the church offers two programs that might be more comfortable for newcomers: a Wednesday night meal with Bible study and a Sunday night meal with worship.
Some people actually come, too, with the aid of a free van ride from their motels. On Wednesday nights at First United Methodist, about half of the 25 children and five to 10 of the 30 adults were originally invited through Bread of Life. On Sunday nights, most of the 60 are from the motels.
"They have grown to trust the church and to trust Jane," says Poe, a self-employed contractor who leaves his work site faithfully every Tuesday afternoon to serve through Bread of Life. The church has partnerships with Second Harvest and Food City to provide groceries for about 96 families, or 1,000 people in a month's time.
Robert, age 51, is one of the more fortunate motel residents. He currently has a job as a combination groundskeeper, pool maintenance man, and laundry room attendant at a hotel. Robert came to Gatlinburg from Biloxi, Miss., as a Hurricane Katrina refugee in 2005. He now pays $115 a week for his room, which he says is on the lower end of the typical $100 to $150 per week.
"Thank God for the food delivery," says Robert, lining up behind the van for bread, milk, and canned goods. When Robert was unemployed last winter, he joined the Bread of Life van crew and handed out food.
"They've been helping me for three years, so I was glad to do it," says Robert. "You've got to feed the people. They're our brothers and sisters."
Other motel residents have joined in the ministry, too, such as Angel, who now oversees the clothes closet at First United Methodist. Angel's six-year-old son, Malik, also comes to the church.
"Just because I have my situation, doesn't mean I can't help somebody else," says Angel. "I just love everyone I've met through the church."
Since 1996, First Gatlinburg has grown from 80 in average worship attendance to 185 today.
"People have become a part of the church because of the outward focus on the community," says Taylor. Some of the new people came on the red van, while others came to the church as entrepreneurs or new retirees.
Many vacationing United Methodists stroll past the church everyday without knowing it. The 71-old stone church building itself is hidden behind a pizza restaurant and fudge shop off Gatlinburg's heavily trafficked parkway. Listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, the church seems out of place beneath the iconic "Space Needle" amusement ride.
A total of about 15 to 20 people from the congregation help order, pack, and deliver the food each week, says Taylor. The church commits about $7,000 in its annual budget to Bread of Life.
Yet, Taylor and others in the ministry realized something long ago: "This is way bigger than us. We need help," Taylor says. "We're trying to expand on what we can do."
Within the past year, First United Methodist Church officially partnered with the First Baptist Church and Our Savior Lutheran Church to form Friends in Need. The Baptist church recently began offering hot meals to the needy on Monday; the Lutheran church, on Thursday. The goal is to try to provide at least one good meal "every day of the week," says Taylor.
Friends in Need is also working with other community groups to provide food to families through the elementary schools; offer mentoring and tutoring for schoolchildren and GED candidates; and locate or build affordable, permanent housing for the weekly motel residents.
In mid-August, Friends in Need signed the lease on a new halfway house for eight recovering male alcoholics, according to Chairperson Jim Faig, a member of First Baptist. Donations and fundraisers are fueling plans for supportive housing arrangements or multi-family residences.
"What we're not looking for is government-subsidized housing or a bunch of people living in old hotels," Faig said. "We've got enough of that already. We're looking for people to have a little pride."
Pride is what Taylor, Poe, and the rest of the van crew seem to take as they practice discipleship in their neighborhood on Tuesday afternoons. They dodge the dog excrement and ignore the smell of liquor to make sure the people are fed, loved, and welcomed into the community of believers.
"Many people in our church know about life. They know that life happens, and none of us are perfect," says Taylor. "We're not here to judge, but to show them we care."
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