Many churches want to make a difference in their communities – but despite good intentions, they sometimes lack the tools or know-how to run effective programs.
In North Carolina, The Duke Endowment has funded a group of statewide nonprofits to help rural United Methodist churches tackle challenges in the regions they serve. The organizations – NC Rural Center, Resourceful Communities, Partners for Health and Wholeness, and RAFI-USA –have expertise in food systems, public health and economic development. By providing guidance and technical assistance, they encourage congregations to put faith into action.
“Strong churches have unique positions in their communities,” says Robb Webb, director of the Endowment’s Rural Church program area. “Being local helps them pinpoint the most pressing needs; being small helps them respond nimbly. With an entrepreneurial spirit and the right resources, they can lead the way.”
This spring, when COVID-19 overwhelmed families with challenges, the four organizations worked with their rural church partners to fill gaps in a strained safety net.
“Our coaches work with churches to widen their lens and look at the bigger picture concerning their community’s challenges,” says Heather Kilbourne, program manager for the NC Rural Center’s Faith in Rural Communities initiative. “The pandemic created an increased sense of urgency to everything our church partners had been discussing over the previous six or seven months. COVID-19 made it imperative that churches step in – and many did, in exciting ways.”
NC Rural Center
Funded by The Duke Endowment, the NC Rural Center’s Faith in Rural Communities initiative trains congregations on how to identify and respond strategically to community needs. This spring, it distributed more than $27,000 in emergency grants for churches to address challenges exacerbated by COVID-19.
Three congregations are paying local restaurants to prepare meals for people in need. Another is using church space for telehealth counseling. First United Methodist in Elizabeth City is providing financial assistance for families facing unemployment or lost income.
“One household used the money to pay overdue utility bills after a medical emergency pushed them into debt,” says the church’s senior pastor, Benny Oakes. “It wasn’t a lot, and their challenges continue, but I can tell you the money at that moment made a difference.”
Partners in Health and Wholeness
An initiative of the North Carolina Council of Churches, Partners in Health and Wholeness has worked with more than 700 congregations since launching 10 years ago. With funding from the Endowment, the goal has been to help congregations serve as health promotion centers focused on mental health, aging, healthy eating, active living and overdose prevention due to substance use disorder. Nearly 200 United Methodist congregations have received resources, and 113 have been recognized as a PHW Collaborative congregation.
Before the pandemic, Partners in Health and Wholeness team members were scheduling in-person meetings and regional events across the state focusing on mental health and healthy aging issues. Instead, in April, they launched a number of virtual events, including a “sacred conversations” series to help faith communities discuss such topics as trauma, isolation and stress.
“We had to pivot pretty quickly,” says Chris Pernell, the initiative’s director. “But we knew issues around mental health were a huge part of this crisis.”
Resourceful Communities, a program of The Conservation Fund, networks with hundreds of grassroots organizations and faith-based groups nationwide, mostly in North Carolina. The goal is to support programs that advance the “triple bottom line,” meaning that they lift people up and promote social justice, help develop ways to strengthen local economies, and steward natural resources. The Duke Endowment supports its work with rural churches in North Carolina.
This spring, with funding from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation and the Oak Foundation, Resourceful Communities awarded $460,000 in grants to help 52 organizations provide COVID-19 relief. Partnership with the Endowment has allowed it to support additional projects at rural United Methodist churches.
One congregation will use its grant to install cold storage for meat raised by and purchased from another Methodist food ministry. Another will hire community members who have been laid off to prepare meals for local families in need.
“Through our partnership with The Duke Endowment, we’re lucky to work with a network of rural United Methodist churches that were already doing innovative food ministries,” says Kathleen Marks, the program’s N.C. director. “With a lot of creativity and quick thinking, they’re stepping further into that ‘radical hospitality’ role.”
In North Carolina, RAFI-USA cultivates markets, policies and communities to support family farms while protecting the environment and farm workers. With the Endowment’s support, its Come to the Table gatherings link the faith community with farmers, farmers’ markets and local leaders engaged in food access work.
RAFI’s $25,000 grants program during the coronavirus crisis focused on helping rural United Methodist churches provide emergency hunger relief. Congregations used the funding to buy fresh food from struggling farmers or restaurants, which they distributed to families in need. One church began purchasing hot meals from a local restaurant for a senior housing center.
“We’re all having to keep our social distance to stay safe during this pandemic,” says Michelle Osborne, RAFI’s program manager for faith-based and community partnerships. “But as a silver lining, I think connections such as this will become long-lasting.”
Robert R. Webb III
Director of Rural Church