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Congregations lack sanctuary from economic woes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 15, 2008 - Many St. Louis area religious congregations are experiencing four facets of the economic downturn.

  •  More needy strangers are phoning to ask for help.
  •  Donations at many congregations are down since September. Critical end-of-year gifts are slow coming in.
  •  Congregations fortunate to have endowments have seen those values drop.
  •  Charity now begins "at home" as some congregations get requests from recently laid off members.

Most congregations that talked to the Beacon have frozen all hiring. Staff who retire or move on to another job will not be replaced. A couple of congregations have or soon will reduce staff hours from full time to part time. One congregation has eliminated a top staff member but is not ready to announce it.

Not all churches have seen a drop in contributions. However, most are concerned about what might happen if 2009 brings lay-offs and the economy continues to slow. And many leaders hope that members will find other ways to cut their budgets rather than cut their financial stewardship at their church. These leaders trust that worshipers take seriously the idea of tithing or stewardship - giving 10 percent of their income, off the top, before shopping for their own wants.

Leaders are encouraging members who are not affected by money woes to increase their gifts not just to congregations but to the poor in the wider community. Some churches with many low-income members are the most determined not to cut funds for the needy strangers.

Talk of financial woes spill into every event. In Bible classes, members talk about the ethical lines crossed by predatory lenders and sort out the morality of lending public money to save jobs. As volunteers cook church suppers, they share tips on breaking their pizza delivery and fast food habits. Cooks swap tasty tips for quick budget meals of spaghetti, canned tuna fish and beans.

Budget cuts and worry about a multi-year economic recession do not have the spiritual leaders predicting the demise of their houses of worship.

From Granite City to Eureka, from Black Jack to the Soulard neighborhood, from Creve Coeur to Grand Center no two congregations share the same circumstances, but these nine congregations' stories ring out with struggle, pain, giving hands and, ultimately, hope.

Third Baptist Church

"So far, our giving is not down," said the Rev. Warren J. Hoffman, pastor at Third Baptist Church , at the northeast corner of Grand and Washington boulevards, in the heart of St. Louis' Grand Center. Members are concerned about the church's many young members working at their first job - who, as the last hired, might be first fired. Members also worry about retired members on fixed income who have seen their invested retirement savings make kamikaze dives.

Hoffman is concerned about what members might pledge to the church for the 2009 budget. Most members give a high priority to their church and the needs of the poor and would cut nonessentials and luxuries at home first, he said. Third Baptist was founded in 1850 and, even when its members were divided by Civil War loyalities, they came together to support the church and honored it as a place of peace each Sunday.

One of the church's toughest economic times was the Flu Pandemic of 1918 when all public assemblies, including churches, closed for six weeks. With no collections for six Sundays, the church survived, Hoffman said.

"Our church has always had a policy of paying cash, not getting loans, always lived within our means, never had lavish expenses," Hoffman said.

Today Third Baptist is stronger than it has been for more than a quarter of a century, he said. In 1948, when many St. Louisans took streetcars to Sunday services, Third Baptist had 6,400 members. Three streetcars lines stopped within a block of the church: the Grand, the Delmar and the University/Olive.

After 1948's peak membership year, war veterans bought cars and houses in suburban developments and went to new Baptist churches. Membership, which gradually shrunk, is on the increase again. Third Baptist members include new city residents living in redeveloped Grand Center, Gaslight Square, Washington Avenue lofts and Lafayette Square, as well as the longtime faithful membership who commute on Sundays from as far as Alton and Chesterfield.

Perhaps the church is unique in one respect. This year the church faced at least 75 percent drop in requests for help from the needy. A Missouri welfare office moved away, and the Delmar bus line does not stop at the church door anymore. The church continues to help 200 needy families but expects a new staff social worker to lead them to other opportunities to serve the poor. She is surveying all social agencies within a mile of the church to see how the congregation can help.

"We want her to reboot our community economic development," he said.

Most Sacred Heart Parish

In Eureka, requests for help from needy non-parish members living within the borders of Most Sacred Heart Parish at 350 East Fourth Street in Eureka have increased since mid-September. Many workers in that area who drive long distances for work, have asked for gas vouchers, said its pastor the Rev. Richard J. Schilli. Requests from strangers for rent and utility bills have also increased. The parish responded. Canned goods filled the church sanctuary just before Thanksgiving.

Since mid-September, the Sunday collections have been "down a bit, not enough to have terrible consequences," said Schilli. "We are not worried. We have a very responsible parish."

That sense of responsibility at the parish in the booming suburb led members to hold capital campaigns and build a new grade school, a new church, a new library wing and rehab the former small church as a parish center. This farming-community parish, founded in 1869, had outgrown two church buildings.

So far, few Sacred Heart parishioners have lost their jobs. Schilli knows of no family who has had its house foreclosed. However, several have had their working hours cut and are no longer getting the overtime that they had come to depend on as regular income, he said.

"People are concerned about what the next six months will bring and are already tightening their belts," he said. The early fall gas prices affected parishioners, as well as their needy rural neighbors.

"Living in the Eureka area, they were used to traveling a lot in the metro area, filling their tanks two to four times a week, but this autumn with the high gas prices they really cut back," Schilli said. When gas was around $4 a gallon, these Eureka parishioners were sympathetic to strangers who asked for gas vouchers saying they couldn't afford the gas to drive to work.

Salem Lutheran Church

In North County, strangers pleading for aid from Salem Lutheran Church increased 8 percent since September.

Long before the September economic news hit, many small businesses in North County were shuttered, said the Rev. Andrew Pallek, pastor of the church at 5180 Parker Road in Black Jack He called the businesses "victims of white flight."

Salem's Sunday collection has dropped about 10 to 15 percent since September, the pastor said. The budget for the parish and school runs August to August. If the decline continues through spring, its $1 million school budget may be cut back with some faculty positions dropped, Pallek estimated. The school's tuition is $4,000 and there was a 10 percent drop in enrollment this fall, down to 140 students. Mostly that is due to the economy, Pallek judged.

"The parents have the alternative of sending children to a free public school," he said.

The church's grade school is its main community service. The majority of its students are Christian but not Lutheran. About 90 percent of the students are African American, while the Lutheran parish is about 15 percent African American, Pallek said. The vast majority of residents in the church's neighborhood are African American.

The church secretary refers callers who are not members and who are seeking food, gasoline and utilities to TEAM, The Emergency Assistance Ministry facility in Florissant. Salem Lutheran is one of 33 North County churches that support that food pantry. Requests are up, and TEAM's costs have nearly doubled because the cooperative often has to pay to truck donations. For example, the cost of bringing in a truckload of donated cereal from Battle Creek, Mich., doubled this fall compared to last.

"Members have had layoffs, forced retirements," Pallek said. "I don't know of anyone losing their homes, but we might not know. Our people very reluctant to ask for help. They are used to giving not being given. They are embarrassed."

It slipped out that a man in a Bible study class who recently had lost his job needed a new furnace. The study group members reached into their wallets and gave him enough money in one evening to pay for a new furnace, the pastor said.

When the man took the money home, his wife said that they could not accept this gift and he returned the class' money, Pallek said.

Pallek's hopes for generous year-end gifts to Salem. The congregation was founded in 1844 by a group of Lutherans from New Bielefold, Germany. This church that dates to just two decades after statehood may have a fragile future. But that's due more to two generations of North County Lutherans moving west than economic crisis.

West County Assembly of God

At West County Assembly of God at 13431 N. Outer 40 Road in Chesterfield, most members are serious about tithing. To consider themselves faithful stewards, they give to God -- to the church in his name -- the first 10 percent of their income before they budget their own needs or run up bills.

The church collections saw a dip in September but October and November donations were back to normal, said its pastor. About 375 attend each Sunday.

"We have obvious commitment here," said the Rev. Jared Stoner, the senior of four pastors. "If they make less next year, they will give less, but they won't stop giving."

Both Sundays before Thanksgiving, Stoner preached about trusting God and how that does not change with swings of the stock market. Members talk about the economy all the time, he said. Many are unsure about the future of their jobs. Most members hold middle-management jobs, are entrepreneurs, salespeople or work in technology. A few are in the professions, he said.

Some members worry about their mortgaged homes in the Ballwin, Valley Park, Chesterfield and St. Charles County, he said. As the nation's financial stability totters, bringing increased calls for help from many, it also increases the opportunity his church community has to reach out and help others, he has preached to them. Directions of what to do are all in the Gospels, he said.

For years, the church and its volunteers have supported a Jefferson County charity depot "Stuff and More." Each week, the church volunteers take the donations of home furnishings, clothing and canned goods to the Jefferson County charity.

"We can try to do what we can for them," he said. The church's men's ministry welcomes the chance to help a needy widow who needs to move or an elderly couple who need help with basic house repairs, he said.

"For a lot of our people giving to those in need is part of our culture and our faith," Stoner said.

Depending on a person's attitude, tough times can make the thoughtfully assess what is really important in life, Stoner said.

"Then they can find joy in giving and helping others," Stoner said.

Shaare Emeth

Members are struggling, some near shock at Shaare Emeth Congregation , 11645 Ladue Road, Creve Coeur, its rabbi said. "We are seeing an increased number of our (congregational) community who are being hit negatively by this downturn," said James Bennett, its senior rabbi.

Members "are losing jobs, being laid off, and unable to fulfill the financial commitment that they have made to us. Members who have never before asked for help now say they need scholarships to attend programs - summer camps and youth conventions - out-of-town," he said.

A few are dealing with possible home foreclosure, he said. Many have seen their investment portfolios shrink. "It's a dramatic change," he said. "I have never in my 25 years (of religious leadership) seen such a large number of our community affected by financial concerns," he said.

Some retirees in the congregation have talked to him and other staff about fears that they may have to go on food stamps. "They never imagined that their economic welfare was so fragile," he said.

The downturn has affected the synagogue's operating budget. "Since summer we've been striving to be more frugal," Bennett said. "We tightened our belt and trimmed (the synagogue's) budget as much as possible."

In preparing the budget for the fiscal year that begins Jan. 1, 2009, the staff has been "aggressive about expenses, eliminated some operations," he said.

Many costs are going up and others, including snow removal from parking lots, can't be predicted, he said. Its 2009 budget eliminates one salary - a staff member who left - and makes some full-time employees part time. He declined to say if any staff would be laid off. "It's terrible to have to do that," he said. "We do have to bring our expenses more in line with our income."

A member of the congregation said he had received a letter saying that one rabbi would be let go.

Shaare Emeth's phone has rung more frequently with nonJewish individuals asking for assistance, he said. All are referred to the Harvey Kornblum Food Pantry, 10950 Schuetz Road. Shaare Emeth, along with most area synagogues, contributes funds to the pantry. Since January, requests at the pantry have increased more than 50 percent. In November, 162 new clients came in, pantry spokesman Susan Rundblad said. About 40 percent of Kornblum recipients are Jewish, belying the stereotype that there are no poor Jews, she said.

The typical Kornblum client used to be more than 55 years old. This year, more families with children have asked for help, Rundblad said.

In the long run, Bennett expects that his synagogue, founded in 1867, will survive and again flourish. "We will continue our mission, but the next few months may be difficult," he said.

Bennett believes that adversity can bring out the best in some people, he said -- with stress on some. More members might choose to volunteer. Hard times may motivate more to care more about each other, he said.

"Jewish tradition reminds us constantly for the need for people to care about others and our world." America may be ready for a turn to caring values, he said. "The recent presidential election can serve as a symbolic reminder that people do want to see a more unified and positive, forward-looking society."

Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church

In Old North St. Louis, the 175 members of the Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church  give what they can to the church. Its white limestone towers at 3519 N. 14th Street are a landmark from I-70.

"There does not seem to be a steep decline in collections," said its pastor, Monsignor Richard Creason. So far, members are holding their jobs and continuing to help the church. A few people, understanding what fellow parishioners are facing, have increased their gifts. As time goes on, and as many more people are hit by this downturn, we may see a drop. That is my fear."

The word sacrifice is commonly used in his parish, founded by German Americans in 1848 and now mostly African American. The parish's small percentage of college graduates is particularly generous, the priest said.

"We've got a lot of our folks whose jobs do not carry health insurance, retirement or pension benefits," Creason said. "Most are hourly workers, part-time workers, domestics, medical workers."

Many worry that their jobs can be the first cut in hard times. Some parishioners patch together their family's living with more than one job. Most have a strong work ethic and are proud of their honest work. If they are hit with major medical expense, like chemotherapy, their survival is in question, he said. Still, they are people of hope.

Many talk constantly about their dream of their children or grandchildren going to college. The parish school enrollment increased by 30 students in August bringing the school population to 105 students. Most new students are on partial scholarships from the Today and Tomorrow Foundation.

Most Holy Trinity expects to hire a new part-time music director. The church has three full-time staff, including the pastor. There are some part-time helpers, and the school's faculty and volunteers do much work, Creason said. The budget has been sliced to the bone for decades but Creason said he'd slash his own modest salary before he'd put his dedicated full-time staff members on the street.

The church's volunteers served 2,000 turkey dinners at Thanksgiving. Some were delivered to shut-ins. Year round, the parish's Our Lady of Perpetual Help Food Pantry serves hundreds of families weekly. Parish volunteers direct the pantry and a computer training program. St. Anselm's Catholic Parish in Creve Coeur helps Most Holy Trinity with pantry donations.

The north side parishioners are activists. Under Creason's leadership, the parish was the founding member of the Metropolitan Churches United, an interfaith network of congregations that restores neighborhood buildings and roads, with hard work, private and public grants and by lobbying legislators.

"Our parishioners are used to doing a lot with what we have," Creason said.

St. Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church

In Granite City at St. Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church ,  1014 W. Pontoon Rd., the Sunday collections have remained steady.

"They have not been going up, but there's been no downturn," said its pastor the Rev. Stephan Baljian.

The Orthodox Christian church's annual December collection, which marks the 54th year of its founding, reached its $13,000 goal and may reach $15,000, "though it's been a bit like pulling teeth," the pastor said.

Fear of future losses rather than specific job cuts has affected the congregation. However, most loyally say their faith is not something they cut back on even if they have to cut back on shopping, eating out, holiday gifts and replacing things that are not necessities.

The news that the steel mills will idle may have broken the hearts of some long-time parishioners. The mills drew many of the members' grandparents and great-grandparents to the Granite City area. The recent idling evoked empathy for current steelworkers. However, none of the current parishioners works there. Most members of the church are white collar workers, Baljian said. Both of the church's deacons work at Boeing, for example. Members reside across a wide swath from rural Illinois to St. Charles to west St. Louis County.

He expects that, no matter their financial struggles, his parishioners will continue to support their parish liturgies, Sunday school and other outreach activities.

Support of church and the poor has to come out of a sense of "thanksgiving for God's blessings," he said. "It has to come from the heart," he said.

St. Gregory parish financially supports some local food pantries and sends funds to charities in Armenia, the land of their ancestors. It is mapping out a more organized volunteer outreach next year.

"As a nation we have lived materialistically, way, way beyond our means," Baljian said. "Any economy can come or go, governments can come and go, nations can come and go, the really important thing is that the community of faith and family remain in place. When people tap into that, then, generosity begins to flow."

Trinity Lutheran Church

Sunday collections have dropped 20 percent since September at Trinity Lutheran Church at 1805 S. Eighth Street in the city's Soulard neighborhood. The congregation has struggling parishioners who have been hit by the recession, its pastor the Rev. David Marth said.

"So, we are scaling back next year's budget," he said. He had penciled it in at $675,000 but has revised down to $600,000. That's still a challenge because he expects utilities and the cost of groceries to sustain its soup kitchen to increase.

"The last thing we'd do is let staff go, we have just four support staff," he said.

The historic Lutheran church, founded before the Civil War in 1839, is up to the challenge, he said. It's seen bad times. Its current building was built in 1898 after the Great St. Louis Cyclone demolished its previous structure. Members sustained the church even when many of the German-American parishioners were locked out of their jobs at dozens of breweries under Prohibition. That government shut-down killed most St. Louis breweries and lasted 14 years, from Jan. 19, 1919, until Dec. 5, 1933.

Trinity Lutheran's focus on helping the needy stranger endured then and remains strong. Six days a week the homeless sip hearty soup and bread served from Trinity Lutheran's "soup window." In addition to steaming soup, Trinity volunteers serve the homeless warmed leftovers from two Soulard restaurants and a banquet center every day but Sunday. Window traffic remains steady.

"Where the church has seen a substantial increase (in requests for help) is from the neighborhood's working poor coming to the church for utility assistance, gasoline vouchers, rent assistance," said Marth. Since September, such requests are up 20 percent.

Income woes or no, there is much hope for its future. Membership was at a standstill for decades until restoration took off in Soulard in the 1980s. And growth continues with 27 new adult members this year. Typical Sunday attendance now is about 325 with a membership roster of 650. Many of the newcomers are young couples who chose to be married in the beautiful church, respect the rigor of its mandatory marriage preparation counseling and then, after their honeymoons continue as regular members, he said.

One place Marth won't cut back is Christmas decorations.

"Many of our (normally shut-in) members and former members who have moved away come home for Christmas," the pastor said. If they are cutting back at home, they won't be disappointed at Trinity Lutheran, he said.

Kirkwood Baptist Church

At Kirkwood Baptist Church , 211 North Woodlawn Ave., leaders are unsure if the church's collection is down because, as is the case at many Christian churches, members often make a generous December gift to make up for vacation weeks and other missed Sundays, said its pastor the Rev. Scott Stearman. On a typical Sunday, 350 of the church's 750 members are in attendance.

"This is the big time of year to catch up, so we'll know after Jan. 1, if 2008 has been a down year," he said.

Some members have taken a financial hit in the crisis. Many worry, Stearman said. The head of the church's finance committee was given "a golden parachute" because of his employer's economic concerns, the pastor said. The church's part-time, popular custodian was laid off at a car dealer where he has worked for 18 years. Several church members are scrambling to find him other supplemental work. Anheuser-Busch employees who are Kirkwood Baptist members are nervous about their future employment.

Kirkwood Baptist was founded in 1870 when the farm-encircled suburb was best known as a railroad depot. Its heart is with its mission to the needy strangers, Stearman said. Kirkwood Baptist funds and provides volunteer staff at the food pantry in the year-old Jubilee Church on Chippewa and Kingshighway. Weekly, Kirkwood Baptist volunteers collect fresh produce, baked goods and dairy products from Kirkwood and Webster Groves Schnucks and Dierbergs stores for the pantry.

Until fall, the pantry had been helping 60 to 70 families a week. Since then, about an extra 20 families have asked for food each week, he said.

The world's economic downturn has come up at Bible classes and in other conversations, he said. In the face of the crisis, members looked at America's abundance compared to other nations. Stearman was stunned to discover that there are 34 million more cars in America than there are licensed drivers. He's been telling members about that to give them perspective.

"Most Americans can tighten their belts, we hope that (by voting for) the new administration, it means they are ready to," he said.

Patricia Rice of St. Louis is a freelance writer who has written widely on religion.