By Mark Bennett
Vince McFarland understood what the mayor envisioned.
Several years before, McFarland and a group of local clergy tried to organize an alliance of the more than 200 churches and places of religious worship in Terre Haute. That effort failed.
Now, they were being asked to try again. Then-mayor Kevin Burke invited an assortment of ministers to meet at the Vigo County Public Library. Burke thought by joining together, the churches could enhance their community outreach — a strength-in-numbers concept. Collectively, they could better respond to the needy, disasters and emergencies, in addition to their spiritual mission.
“He challenged the pastors in Terre Haute to basically rally and unify, and start working together, and not each on their own course,” McFarland recalled of that meeting a few years ago.
Burke also saw an opportunity to build camaraderie in the ministers’ ranks, rather than competition. “I felt like they needed to feel more confident, and like they’ve got more comrades in arms,” the former mayor remembered last week.
Walking out of the library after the meeting, McFarland — senior pastor at Maryland Community Church for the past 23 years — polled his colleagues. “I looked at those guys and said, ‘I know we tried to do that several years ago, and it didn’t work. But would you be willing to sit down and rehash this?”
They agreed. Today, Terre Haute Ministries is more than a year old, with more than 40 member churches from numerous denominations. Last Monday, Ike Randolph — director of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’ Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives — met with some participating ministers. Their association’s growth and activities impressed Randolph.
“I think they’ve figured out the whole dynamic of the faith-based community working together,” Randolph said.
That enlightenment came at a disastrous moment. Just as Terre Haute Ministries was organizing, the flood of June 2008 hit. The newly bound churches wound up assisting civic emergency-response agencies as rising waters destroyed homes and businesses, and left hundreds of people without a place to live, food and transportation.
A team of churches, with all of their helping hands and resources, clearly was needed.
“The heart of it was there” for years, said the Rev. Honnalora Hubbard, director of Terre Haute Ministries. “The pastors wanted it. But what really launched Terre Haute Ministries was the disaster recovery.”
Randolph sensed that, too. “From that flood, they’ve learned how to trust each other, to share resources with each other,” he said.
The flood is a painful memory for many in the Wabash Valley. Hubbard understands. She lost her home, too. But there’s a spark in Hubbard’s voice when she speaks about the community’s reaction to that destructive event.
“People say that disasters are an ‘act of God,’” she said, “but what I’ve learned is, the way we respond to disasters is an act of God.”
As a result, the coalition of churches now helps the Vigo County Emergency Management Agency train disaster-response volunteers. Among other efforts, about half of the member churches participate in Charity Tracker. Using an online software package, Terre Haute Ministries can refer the needy to churches offering resources matching their specific need. Lifeline — a 24-hour crisis hotline — refers callers to its 211 number to a church. The Charity Tracker helps the Ministries document those requests, and connect people with needs such as groceries, gas cards, home assistance and family counseling. (It also prevents abuse of the individual churches’ generosity, such as someone calling six different churches to ask for the same commodity.)
The Ministries churches have less unnecessary duplication of their efforts. “Each church wouldn’t have to have a food pantry and six other things that they do,” McFarland said. “They could just contribute one thing to the pot.” Rather than maintaining a food pantry, Maryland instead provides as many $25 gas cards and emergency bus tickets as it can afford each month.
The idea of churches assisting their community’s hungry, homeless and despondent is not revolutionary. Before the Depression of the 1930s spawned government relief programs, “the faith community was doing the work,” Randolph said.
“Churches have always been there to help,” McFarland said. “So this isn’t anything new. But it’s expanded.”
And timely. The recession and the unemployment problem lingering in its aftermath have increased the number of people seeking help from churches. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported last month that 49 million Americans — more than 16 percent of the population — lacked reliable access to adequate food in 2008, an increase of 13 million people over 2007. Undoubtedly, with unemployment nearly doubled since ’07, that percentage is even higher this year.
An association of churches eases the pressure to respond, somewhat.
“Pastors and ministers sometimes feel isolated, because they have a lot of responsibilities and a lot of people turning to them,” Hubbard said. “It’s been a huge benefit.”
She’s been on the other side of those requests for help. Hubbard grew up humbly in West Terre Haute and said, “I know what it is like to live in the situations [needy people] live in.”
After graduating from West Vigo High School, she earned a bachelor’s degree in sales and marketing from Indiana State University, and a master’s in theology from Trinity College and spent several years traveling the country in a sports ministry. Now 39, Hubbard is focused on helping Terre Haute Ministries grow.
The one-fifth of local churches involved already bolsters the association’s abilities, she said, “but if we had 200, oh my goodness. And that’s what we want to do.” Current Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett, as well as the governor’s office, have discussed local projects involving the Ministries, Hubbard said, adding, “They really want to make some investments in our community.”
Terre Haute Ministries’ assistance following the flood has raised awareness that the city does, indeed, have a faith-based community. In cities such as Indianapolis and Louisville, that presence is apparent, in McFarland’s view. As for Terre Haute, “I think the visibility was kind of poor” in the past, he said. “We haven’t solved it, but I think it’s beginning to turn around.”
Their ability to improve and influence lives inspires Hubbard.
“I know there’s hope, that just because that’s where you started, that’s not where you’re going to end up,” she said.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or email@example.com.