August 28, 2008
MOBILE, Ala. (RNS) -- When parishioners at All Saints Episcopal Church began distributing groceries to families in need a few years ago, they gave away about 100 boxes of food.
Within the last year, the Rev. Jim Flowers said, they began stocking and giving out 175 boxes, and they still run out of supplies.
While this city may not have encountered the widespread economic hardships some U.S. cities have experienced, Americans along the Gulf Coast, as elsewhere, have nevertheless spent a summer grappling with soaring gas prices and rising food costs.
State records show the sum of food stamp dollars doled out monthly in Alabama increased by a third -- from $41.6 million to $55.3 million -- between May 2004 and May 2008. This past May, 572,000 people participated, up 78,000 from five years ago.
Nationwide, 72 percent of Americans say the economy is either in a recession or a depression, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press recently reported. The group also stated it was getting harder for many Americans to afford some of life's most basic necessities.
For faith-based organizations, widespread economic woes might seem to have the potential to create a complicated situation: At the same time that more people may call upon them for assistance, those who routinely provide funding to charitable groups may be less able to respond.
Historically, however, church-member giving doesn't necessarily decline in a recession, according to empty tomb, inc., an Illinois-based research group that studies religious giving. This "probably has to do with the fact that churches are generally seen as the layer immediately beyond the family in terms of responsibility, accountability, relationships," explained Sylvia Ronsvalle, executive vice president of empty tomb.
For churches, "The needs are front and center," Ronsvalle said, and may entail anything from the power bill and pastor's salary to community service. "There is a communication system which underscores the importance of the religious impulse in giving, which other research supports."
Flowers, rector at All Saints Episcopal Church, said he's told his parish that it's apparent that needs are greater as a result of the current financial climate.
The congregation is "responding beautifully" and pledges are substantially up this year, Flowers said.
Meanwhile, Robert E. Kirby Jr., director of the Catholic Charities Appeal, said those who promised to provide funding -- nearly $4.3 million in all -- for some of the Archdiocese of Mobile's social service ministries are fulfilling their pledges.
"When people pledge to Catholic Charities, they fulfill that pledge," he said. "We're right where we should be."
Kirby recently noted, however, that the cost of providing services had doubled for ministries that involve travel.
"That kind of crimps things a little bit," he said, but funds to cover such increased costs are available.
Linda Johnson, administrator at this city's Mount Hebron Baptist Church, said her congregation is witnessing an increase in community needs. At its newly opened pantry, clothing and non-perishable food items are available for members and non-members alike. Funded by donations from church members, the facility is staffed on Mondays and Fridays.
"We're just excited to be able to be a blessing," she said.
(Kristen Campbell writes for The Mobile Press-Register in Mobile, Ala.)
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