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.

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.

Volunteering

As a long-term missionary, serving with her husband and children in Zambia and the Ukraine, Donna Alexander witnessed the complexities and consequences of deep poverty in her day-to-day ministry.

Yet, when she arrived at Shepherd Community Center in 2018 to serve as director of volunteers, Alexander began to see poverty in a new light.

“I felt like I knew a lot about it,” she says, as we talk in the training kitchen at Shepherd. “But when I came here, I soon learned that poverty is completely different. In countries like Zambia, poverty is expected. Here, it’s more a of mindset.”

Alexander works to coordinate Shepherd’s army of volunteers – from churches, businesses, community organizations – and helps them to understand more about the people they meet at the center and in the surrounding neighborhoods.

It’s not only about serving food or handing out clothing. Even more important, it’s about helping volunteers to connect on a person-to-person level with “our neighbors,” as Alexander describes the people who turn to Shepherd for help.

“God put a call in the heart of volunteers to serve,” she says. “I’ve learned that can be as powerful as with our staff.”

Recent volunteer opportunities have included home renovation projects, including painting, building fences, and constructing wheelchair ramps. During the holiday season, volunteers help serve meals and distribute toys, clothing, and food baskets. Many volunteers also serve at a Saturday morning food pantry, where families can stock up on necessities.

One major need, Alexander says, is for volunteers to read to Shepherd Academy students and listen as the students practice reading skills.

During the holidays, the volunteer season hits a new level with the distribution of 300 Baskets of Hope (donated this year by Indian Creek Christian Church), the annual Mozel Sanders Dinner on Thanksgiving Day, the annual Christmas Festival, and the Christmas Store (where volunteers help parents pick out gifts for their children).

“It’s a very festive time,” Alexander says.

One of Shepherd’s strengths is the depth of its volunteer corps. They come from small groups, Sunday School classes, congregations, and community organizations. They also come from the workplace. Companies such as Eli Lilly send teams of volunteers to meet a variety of needs on the Near Eastside.

Alexander says the annual Christmas Store, Shepherd’s largest event of the year, is a prime opportunity to serve. The first crews of volunteers, who fill 75-minute shifts, start working at 8 a.m. and the final teams wrap up the day at 6 p.m.

Last year, Shepherd served more than 300 families and distributed about 1,000 gifts at the Christmas Store. “It’s a very special event,” Alexander says.

For those who want to go deeper, Shepherd offers training to explore the complexities of the issue in Indianapolis and beyond.

“Poverty is about much more money,” Alexander says.