A call to help: Amid national emergency, east side families struggle to feed children and pay bills

The requests for help pouring into Shepherd Community Center provide a snapshot of the already devastating economic consequences of a fast-moving global pandemic.

Parents say they need food to feed their families as businesses shut down and work hours are cut, or eliminated altogether. Others need soap, hand sanitizer and toilet paper. At least one family asked for help to pay electric and water bills.

A mother, who suddenly lost her job, was worried that Shepherd’s food pantry would close. (It’s still open and serving east side neighbors who otherwise wouldn’t know from where and when their next meal will come).

The coronavirus pandemic has created fear and uncertainty around the globe. Nowhere is the uncertainty more unsettling than in poverty-stricken neighborhoods like those on the east side where many families live from one payday to the next.

“The loss of hours that families saw in their paychecks last week is affecting their ability to pay bills this week,” Jay Height, Shepherd’s executive director, said. “It’s very immediate.”

I asked Height how those of us blessed with more financial margins can help families whose challenges have now become much more daunting.

“First, pray,” he said. “We are distributing sack breakfasts and sack lunches each day. We continue to need food, and we’re especially thankful for our partnership with Gleaners (Food Bank). People can pack food boxes and drop them off here at Shepherd. They also can donate online.”


Shepherd staff set up an online donation page that makes assisting children and families fast and convenient. A donation of $20 will feed a child for a week. A gift of $65 will meet a family’s needs for the next seven days.

With Shepherd Academy, like other schools across the nation, closed indefinitely, staff sent computers home with families so that learning can continue online. The digital bridge also preserves important personal connections that help counter the dangers of social isolation.

But as stress levels rise and job losses continue to mount, Height said that the risk of suicides and domestic violence also increases. To help, the Shepherd team is calling twice a week the hundreds of families it serves to listen, pray and offer encouragement.


“We are continuing to serve the children and families in our neighborhood,” Height said.

A global pandemic and national emergency have not — and will not — change that.

In fact, the needs have never been more urgent. And the call for all of us to respond with generosity, courage and perseverance has never been greater.

Upward Stability

A number of year ago I was teaching a Poverty 101 session and we were having a little Q & A at the end when I was asked what should have been a simple question. The woman wanted to know what our goal was in working with our neighbors, specifically what we were trying to help them accomplish economically. The first thought that came to my mind was to talk about upward mobility. But as the words were about to come out of my mouth they just didn’t sound right.

So I thought for a second and said that we were really after upward stability. And that is the idea that your life is more stable today than it was a couple of years ago. And that your life is on a trajectory that it will be more stable a couple of years from now than it is today.

And this idea is about understanding that economic class is really about how stable your life is. When my life is stable and all of my daily needs are met without too much effort, I can think about the future.

But if I live in a constant state of chaos and I spend my life wondering daily how are we going to get enough food today, or how are we going to pay the bills, or get to work then I have little margin to think about the future.

If we can come alongside our families and empower them to provide a more stable environment for their children then those children can begin to look toward their futures with hope. And this is the primary differentiator between children who grow up middle class and those who grow up in poverty, whether they are future-oriented or present-oriented.

And the key to helping present-oriented kids become future-oriented kids is Upward Stability.

Learning to Love our Neighbors

Sometimes someone says something that suddenly shifts your way of thinking. And changes how you view the people around you.

Take, for example, a recent conversation with Donna Alexander, Shepherd Community Center’s director of volunteers. As we talked about a range of volunteer opportunities, Alexander repeatedly used a phrase that I love in relation to ministry:

Our neighbors.

As in, the people who receive services from Shepherd aren’t “clients,” or “people in need,” or even “the people we serve.”

They are our neighbors.

That way of thinking about the families who receive Baskets of Hope or visit the Christmas Store goes beyond a mere phrase. It informs an approach to ministry.

Ministry becomes even more about building long-term relationships and less about meeting temporary (although essential) needs. It becomes less about our need for validation and more about the needs of others – things like respect, dignity, and love.

Now, in case you think, I’m making far too big a deal out of a couple of words, just remember that Jesus had quite a bit to say about what we say to each other, including the fact that our words reflect our heart (Matthew 15:18).

He also left instructions about how we’re to live in relationship with our neighbors (that thing called love).

So, a simple phrase like “our neighbors,” and the thinking it reveals, matters. A lot.

A couple of questions to challenge you and me before we step back into the service line: How do we truly see the people whose needs we try to meet? Do we approach them as equal children of God? Do we carry even a hint of economic, intellectual, cultural superiority? Are we self-centered in our service (“It makes me feel good”), or do we persist when we’re tired, frustrated, and unvalidated?

Do we understand that it’s not about us; it’s about our neighbors? (And the One who loves all of us no matter our Zip code, bank balance, or job title).

Now, let’s go serve. And love. Together.