The headline in the Jefferson City (Mo.) News Tribune sounded a community-wide alarm: “Pantry’s shelves looking bare.” The story was about the Samaritan Center, widely known in the city and beyond as a place where those in need can secure food and other services.
By its own description: “The Samaritan Center is an interfaith social service agency organized to meet emergency or crisis needs of the people in Mid-Missouri area which are not already being met through state and federal or other nonprofit programs. The Center is to be an advocate of the people who ask for help and fulfill the Gospel message of Jesus.”
Communities large and small all across Missouri have benevolent agencies like this, many of them faith-based.
This agency and others like it are going through a seasonably slow time. But the needs of people who require basic survival services such as local food pantries provide are hardly seasonal.
Most of these organizations continually deal with the stress of maintaining adequate food and clothing supplies in their pantries, particularly those that rely upon the good will of donors.
In the capital city of Missouri, churches and businesses maintain close contact with places like the Samaritan Center and vice-versa. When the center announces that its supply of non-perishable food items is growing thin, congregations respond with alerts of their own, particularly making members aware of the impending crisis.
The same is true of shortages of new and used clothing, school supplies, toys and cash to help with a family’s utility bills. That does not include special needs during other times like Thanksgiving and Christmas, times when drives tend to fill up pantry shelves.
From time to time, publications like Word&Way try to help get out the word of shortages that affect the delivery of critical supplies and services to people not only in one community, but in neighborhoods, towns, cities and counties all across the state. If seasonal shortages are a problem in one Missouri community, they are likely a reality all across the state and across the country.
Seasonal shortfalls are especially critical when circumstances push demand upward. Many communities are certainly affected by increased joblessness, prompting ongoing spikes in requests for basic services such as those offered by places like the Samaritan Center. Certainly this has been the case all across the country for the past couple of years. Such needs will remain for at least the near future.
It is a powerful witness for churches and church people to participate in efforts to respond to individuals like senior citizens, children and families who need a helping hand. Compassion is in the DNA of believers because they are made in the image of God, are committed to his purposes and seek to respond to the Creator’s proddings.
The Samaritan Center encourages church groups — including children, teens and others — to participate hands-on in efforts to collect and deliver resources. It welcomes volunteers who can help keep the center operating efficiently and to work with clients — probably like any number of other such entities across Missouri.
Not everyone is in a position to assist local agencies engaged in hunger and poverty ministries. But most congregations can make sure such community outreach is on their agendas.
Some choose not to assist because they are convinced that some families abuse the system and try to secure services when they are not in need. Others claim that many adults who technically qualify for help suffer from self-inflicted poverty because they refuse to work or to otherwise show good judgment in caring for their own children.
But most agencies work hard to make sure those with the greatest need — the least of these — receive needed services. That is why businesses, churches and individuals exercise their compassion through well-run agencies. And the children of parents who show poor judgment in caring for their families may well be just as needy as any other youngsters.
Even those of us in the Christian community are often guilty of wearing blinders when it comes to tuning in to human need in our own communities. Find out who is providing such services and what they need by way of contributions and volunteer assistance to help people.
Encourage your church to assess — or re-assess — its role in helping struggling families and individuals. Consider inviting representatives from local human-needs agencies to share information about their work and about the needs in the community.
After all, Jesus linked involvement in human-needs ministries to eternal judgment. And he taught by example how to reach out to the “least of these.”
Bill Webb is editor of Word&Way.