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Offering hope: Faith-based providers add to social services in an evolving climate

"We believe that's what God wants us to do - love the tax collector, love the prostitute, love the leper. Everyone has a story."

Feb 25, 2018 at 5:00 am
    Samantha Allsup and her son, Zephaniah, 5, of Cedar Rapids are photographed at her home on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018. When Allsup moved to Cedar Rapids she had to start from scratch and has slowly acquired belongings for herself and her five-year-old son thanks to family and services like the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Cedar Rapids. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

    When Samantha Allsup moved to Cedar Rapids in late 2017, she had her 4-year-old son with her and little else.

    Allsup wanted a fresh start after she said she had to obtain a no-contact order for her son’s father and move to Cedar Rapids from southern Iowa. Now 26, she still was searching for a job when interviewed for this article in early 2018.

    Without family in Eastern Iowa, she and her son stayed at area homeless shelters, which Allsup said confused her son, Zephaniah. Now, Allsup and her son live in a two-bedroom apartment in northeast Cedar Rapids, though Allsup continues to search for a job and household supplies, such as furniture, mattresses and dishes.

    “We didn’t have much of anything,” Allsup said. “We still don’t. We just kind of came on the grace of God up here. I might not have much right now, but we’re truly blessed to be under a roof and can be comfortable. We just stay prayed up.”


    When it was Christmastime, she was drawn to Cedar Rapids’s Society of St. Vincent de Paul, partly because of its religious affiliation.

    She visited the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store where employees and volunteers gathered a Batman toy, a combination dry erase board and chalkboard and gift cards to Burger King and McDonald’s for her son. But they also gifted Allsup a set of silverware, towels and slippers. Later, volunteers delivered a dresser to her apartment.

    The Society of St. Vincent de Paul has locations across the nation. The Cedar Rapids organization was started in the 1960s and is supported by five Catholic parishes that provide guidance, donations and volunteers. At the thrift store in southeast Cedar Rapids, those in need can complete applications for rent and utility assistance, furniture and other household goods. Food boxes are available every 90 days, but the society has a fresh-food line where clients can pick up loaves of bread or day-old, fresh-prepared meals from grocery stores that otherwise would be thrown out.

    This past year, the organization supplied nearly 9,000 adults and children with food boxes and $80,000 in financial assistance, said Kyle Flynn, who helps operate St. Vincent de Paul with her husband, James.

    “We run on a small skeleton crew of volunteers,” Kyle said. “A lot of people when they come in say, ‘This is the first time I’ve had to ask for help.’ We try to always put them at ease. We’re happy to do this. We try to be a positive influence so they understand if you want to come and help us help others, you can do that, too.”

    And while many volunteers are from the supporting parishes, James said she has regular volunteers today who used St. Vincent de Paul’s services in the past.

    “They’re just people that want to help other people, and we’re a venue to let that happen,” he said. “There will always be people who need help.”

    Allsup said she’d considered volunteering, too.

    “I’m trying to ... do anything I can before I can reach out to somebody for help. I don’t like to bother folks. I’m used to struggling,” she said. “If I’m not able to get blessed here soon with employment, it’s been put on my heart that I wouldn’t mind volunteering or giving back.”

    Social Salvation

    In America, the roots of organized religious social services can be traced back to the Reconstruction era after the Civil War, when evangelical churches began to serve newly free men and women, said Cara Burnidge, assistant professor of religion at the University of Northern Iowa.

    The movement grew as an idea of “social salvation,” the idea that society needed to align morals and laws to Christian values, Burnidge said. The idea spread to local, state and federal laws, and government and state-funded social services were plentiful by the 20th century.

    “A lot of people when they come in say, ‘This is the first time I’ve had to ask for help.’ We try to always put them at ease. We’re happy to do this. We try to be a positive influence so they understand if you want to come and help us help others, you can do that, too.”

    - Kyle Flynn

    St. Vincent de Paul


    In fact, the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was established under the George W. Bush administration and continued under the Obama administration. The initiative allowed federal funding to go toward faith-based not-for-profits and community organizations providing social services, the idea being that the organizations already were well-placed to serve their community’s needs.

    Critics objected to having federal money involved in religious pursuits. There is no one currently heading the office under the Trump administration.

    Many religious institutions and worship centers, however, continue to provide social services — ones that are coordinated periodically by members of a congregation, organized by many, or run by full-time employees.

    “Most major faith traditions have some aspect of serving those who are less fortunate,” said Sarai Rice, executive director of the Des Moines Area Religious Council.

    Because they believe in the tenet of providing for the needy, members of a worship center may be more likely to give of their time or money.

    And though an increasing number of those brought up in religious households are disaffiliating from the mainstream religious organizations in which they were reared, Rice said there also is a rise in large Christian congregations. So there may be fewer congregations but existing ones are larger.

    Does that mean less support by local religious communities? Not necessarily, Rice said.


    Focusing their energy

    The Lutheran Church of Hope ministries in central Iowa has one of the state’s largest congregations — about 12,400 regular members.

    The church has a goal of using 50 percent of funds given to the church for operating expenses and donating the other 50 percent to local and global service organizations.

    The church currently is giving 47 percent of its funds to those services, said Matt McNeece, missions director based at the West Des Moines church’s campus.

    The church acts as a hub of information and donations for more than 40 social service providers in central Iowa, McNeece said. Volunteers or donors work with the church to channel their money or time, but the church also connects those in need with service providers, helping them apply for government programs.

    This past year, about $4.28 million was given to social service groups or fundraisers in Iowa and across the globe, according to Lutheran Church of Hope’s annual report.

    “We’ve chosen to focus our energy in the form of prayers, funds and volunteers to our partners,” McNeece said. “We’ve gone out and said, ‘Who’s already doing this and what are the ways in which we can help?’ Because of our size, we’re able to partner in substantial, landscape-changing ways.”

    Instead of channeling time and donations to other social service providers, other congregations have banded together to create and support a separate organization that provides social services, such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

    Another such organization in Cedar Rapids is Metro Catholic Outreach, started after the floods of 2008 when the need for social services in the community skyrocketed. Metro Catholic Outreach, located in downtown Cedar Rapids with a two-person, part-time staff, is supported by 11 local Catholic parishes.

    “Do we have people who abuse the system? Sure. But the vast majority of my clients are the working poor.”

    - Kate Leonard-Getty

    Metro Catholic Outreach


    Coordinating the food pantries, clothing closets and charitable efforts at the time became cumbersome, said Kate Leonard-Getty, executive director of Metro Catholic Outreach. So parish leaders decided to create one organization to provide services.

    “They realized we were much stronger together than apart,” Leonard-Getty said. “If someone needs food, instead of having to go to St. Matthew’s and St. Wenceslaus, they just come to us. It takes the load off the churches and the clients.”

    Now the organization provides food boxes, which families can receive every 30 days. It also provides financial assistance in $200 increments, which a person is eligible for once a year. Last year, Leonard-Getty said about $100,000 in financial assistance was given out, though requests for assistance far outpaced the amount given.

    Metro Catholic Outreach could not survive without the volunteers who put in time — about 6,500 hours last year — for both faith-based and non-religious reasons, Leonard-Getty said.

    Because it is supported by local parishes and does not receive state or federal funding, clients are not required to show identification or provide proof of income. Leonard-Getty said she believes that is a relief to some clients.

    “We have a lot of grandparents as parents, and they don’t have guardianship papers. We don’t care,” she said. “We don’t care if you’re legal or not. We believe that’s what God wants us to do — love the tax collector, love the prostitute, love the leper. Everyone has a story.

    “Do we have people who abuse the system? Sure. But the vast majority of my clients are the working poor.”


    Feed the poor

    While other organizations have banded together to provide a variety of services, some focus on one mission.

    For more than 30 years, First Presbyterian Church in downtown Cedar Rapids has provided a hot meal on Sunday evenings to fill in the gap when weekday meal programs aren’t operating. About 10 volunteers prepare and serve fresh food each Sunday.

    A good share of the volunteers come from local schools, businesses or community groups, but many church members still volunteer every Sunday. That’s because First Presbyterian made a conscious effort to stay in downtown Cedar Rapids and have the Sunday meal program as a guiding mission.

    “It was ‘we’re downtown for good,’ meaning we plan to stay here for a long time, but it’s also where we can do the most good,” longtime volunteer and First Presbyterian member Allen Fisher said.

    Another such organization is the River of Life Church in northwest Cedar Rapids, which runs a food pantry on Wednesday mornings because “scripture says to feed the poor,” said Thomas High, who volunteers at the pantry. The food is purchased from Eastern Iowa’s Hawkeye Area Community Action Program Food Bank.

    More than 50 families come each week in the two hours the pantry is open, High said. Some clients are seeking to stretch a food budget after an unexpected financial hit — but many are regulars, including elderly residents on fixed incomes or those on disability for health issues.


    That includes Rebecca McCoy, 51, who said she started coming to the pantry once a month in December. McCoy’s husband is a severe diabetic and is having trouble regulating his insulin levels. It’s prevented him from working for the past few years, she said.

    McCoy provides home care for seniors and was working 60 to 70 hours a week before December. However, the long hours on her feet exacerbated damage to her heart from a heart attack five years ago, she said. She had to have another surgery in December.

    “I was working so much, my feet and my legs swelled up and they thought I had congestive heart failure,” McCoy said. “I only come if I have to. I leave it for somebody who really does need it.”

    While she is out of work, the River of Life pantry allows her to gather fresh fruits and vegetables and packaged foods low in sugar.

    The faith-based organizations providing social services make it clear they are not seeking to duplicate services and that they cannot replace state or federally funded not-for-profits.

    Clients don’t necessarily seek out religious-based not-for-profits and they aren’t more likely to be religious after being served by one, the Des Moines Area Religious Council’s Rice said.

    In addition, the organizations typically are not attempting to convert clients to a religion.

    Leonard-Getty, of Metro Catholic Outreach, agreed.

    “I think we’ll continue to see people use social services, especially religious, because state and federal funds don’t go as far as they used to,” she said. “ I have clients that get $10 and $11 for food stamps. What does that do?

    “As support from a state and federal level is going down, more people are going to use private social services. We have a lot of people who qualify as working poor and are working full-time, but they can’t quite get ahead.”

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