The city of Greece — a large suburb of Rochester, New York — is known as a family-friendly city where residents are kind, caring and helpful, perhaps because of its small-town feel. Stephanie Banach, a resident of Greece and member of Hope Lutheran Church in Rochester, explained that “you can’t even go to Wegman’s [grocery store] without finding someone that you know.”
But Greece isn’t Pleasantville, and poverty is no respecter of suburbs.
The working poor of Greece daily rub shoulders with the wealthy. On one street you’ll find a family with six cars and on the next street over a family relies solely on public transportation to get around. Compounding the problem is the reality that many of the poorer families have single fathers or mothers, or a grandparent raising children while trying to survive solely on social security.
Many people are secretly struggling, but they’re stuck in an awkward place because they are the working poor – making too much money to be below the poverty line, but not enough to get by without constant worry and stress.
A heavy burden
“The working poor are usually just one emergency away from falling through,” said Banach. “One minute they’re doing okay and getting to work, but then their car breaks down and there is no safety net to catch them.”
Even when not in the middle of a crisis, however, food and medical costs are almost always a heavy burden.
“In many of these families, the parents make sure that the kids are going to the doctor, but they are not going to the doctor themselves,” shared Banach. “Plus, the working poor aren’t qualified for other [government] benefits and assistance because they are technically above the poverty line, but they can’t afford what they need, including food.”
Banach’s church, Hope, is close to the poorer part of town while it also borders a wealthier part of Greece. Families that worship at Hope comprise both groups, brought together by the Gospel. There, the playing field is leveled: in Christ, everyone is treated with dignity because they are all redeemed and loved by God.
Keeping this in mind, the church wanted to do something tangible that would support these families, showing them mercy through their struggles while upholding their dignity.
Not just a food pantry
To address the need, a food pantry was started at Hope seven years ago. It began with just 11 families being served, one time a month. Of course, word about the pantry spread and, before long, the pantry was jam-packed with people in need of food. This was no surprise to Hope, of course, because out of the 100,000 residents in Greece, 30% are part of the working poor demographic.
In order to treat everyone with dignity, the volunteers at Hope’s pantry didn’t ask for financial statements from those they served. Rather, guests only had to prove residency in Greece with a photo ID and a utility bill.
The pantry partnered with FoodLink, a larger food bank, and doors were open every fourth Saturday of the month in the church’s fellowship hall. Now serving 400-500 families in just one day, this set-up was becoming less sustainable for the long-term.
“When the church’s preschool was done on Friday afternoons, the food would arrive,” said Banach. “Volunteers would come, the pantry was set up and guests would start coming on Saturday morning.”
Great joy in showing love
To keep the event from reaching a level of chaos, appointment cards were distributed to pantry guests every half hour between 11:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., to the tune of 50 appointment cards for each time slot.
It took more than 100 volunteers to pull this off — many from Hope, but also high schoolers doing community service, sports teams, Girl Scouts, National Honor Society members, other church groups and even food pantry guests who are served themselves but want to give back. Hope’s volunteers found great joy in showing love to the pantry’s guests.
“At 3:30 p.m. the guests are feeling as loved as the people we serve at 11:00 a.m. in the food pantry,” said Banach.
These many volunteers weren’t just doling out baskets of food, either.
“Once a person gets their appointment card and goes through registration, they also have a kind of interview with a volunteer to discuss their family size, what’s going on in life, etc.,” explained Banach.
“There’s also a community health worker there, and volunteers offer to pray with every person who comes through. A few guests who have been with us for quite a while began to develop relationships with particular volunteers. They trusted each other and that led to opening up a little more. Soon we learned that there were more needs – medical services, financial education and even support for veterans who tend to avoid food pantries because of the noise, which can easily trigger PTSD.”
Hope and dignity
The church’s desire to expand their offering to show mercy in more ways than just providing food led to a new idea: The Center for Hope.
Since the set-up and take-down of this once-a-month pantry was becoming more difficult to sustain, the leadership envisioned a center that featured a permanent food pantry that would be open several times a week, a medical room that offered preventative and acute care and even resume and job training services.
In this new center, Hope would be able to offer more choices in food to guests, store the food and even spend more time getting to know the people who were being served.
The pantry would operate more like a mini-grocery store, where people could choose which day and time they’d like to shop. This would be yet another way that Hope could help people keep their dignity while accepting assistance, getting their basic needs met and developing relationships with people based on the love of Christ.
But it was a tall order.
The boost the church needed
Going from a temporary food pantry to a Center for Hope required all hands-on deck, so the planning committee thought it best to contact Lutheran Church Extension Fund (LCEF) and apply for a Kaleidoscope Grant. The Kaleidoscope Fund — a granting initiative established by LCEF — would provide the church the boost they needed to get the project launched sooner rather than later.
“We found out about the grant on the LCEF website,” shared Banach. “We’ve had a long relationship with LCEF and have worked together in the past. We just knew this would be something great for us. With the grant, the Center for Hope is able to happen a lot sooner. Plus, we were able to add in some additional training that needed to happen because it’s a lot of extra for our pastor to take on.
“It’s a blessing to this ministry and a confirmation of God’s blessing on this vision,” added Banach. “It’s confirmation from LCEF that they believe in this as much as we do, and for them to say yes, it was very reassuring. It’s like LCEF is in this with us.”
Loved by God
The Hope 2020 Vision aims to establish the Center for Hope in the year 2020 as a 501(c)(3) ministry that is financially self-sufficient.
“We truly want to invest in people long-term to help them move from crisis to thriving,” said Banach. “We’re in this for the long haul.
“The prayer for all of us is that the town of Greece will know it is loved by God,” she added. “We just want to be able to meet people where they are. It’s not us saying ‘this is what this town needs,’ or asking how we can fix the town. It’s about leading people to realize they are made in God’s image and loved by God. We want them to know that we are just as broken and in need of a Savior as they are. The Center for Hope is going to touch lives and it already is touching lives here and now, in a town loved by God.”
Mary Nicholson, a guest of the food pantry, knows all about that love as she developed friendships at the pantry and a connection with the church.
“Hope’s food pantry has been a blessing for my family because, as a single mom of three on disability, there were times I didn’t know how I was going to feed my children,” shared Nicholson. “If Hope wasn’t there, I don’t know what I would have done.”
Now, Nicholson enjoys volunteering at the pantry because “I know firsthand what it means to be a recipient of such a blessing as food when you don’t know where to turn. So I just like to give back to those in need of what Hope has to offer. I love interacting with the people who come to Hope for help. If I can give them a little comfort, a smile, even a little laughter, it lets them know that everything will be okay.”
“The Center for Hope,” said Banach, “will offer services potentially attainable through other social service agencies. The difference is that the disciples serving at Hope truly care about the eternity of each guest who enters the Center.”
She concluded: “By offering food multiple days a month, medical services, educational classes and opportunities for prayer, Hope will serve the poor in a dignified way that will allow for trusting relationships to be developed. Through these relationships, the Gospel will be shared. We really want to share Jesus with them and our heart is in loving these people as Christ has loved us. It’s all about sharing the Gospel.”