The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


On the inside looking out

We did a focus group as part of strategic planning at Trinity Episcopal Church, Clarksville, Tenn. Question: if you stood on the edge of your church's property and looked outward, rather than inward as we usually do, what would you see?

A public school kindergarten teacher spoke about kids who come to school hungry and wearing shabby clothing. She started to discuss the family chaos her kids describe during sharing time, but she began to weep and couldn’t speak at all.

“We see kids born into addictive families,” she said. “Their fine-motor skills are missing. Your heart breaks for them. They try so hard, but they don’t have the at-home support. Some parents are struggling just to put food on the table.”

A company commander from the Army’s Fort Campbell sees “brokenness” among her soldiers. Many joined the military to escape deprivation back home, but it doesn’t always work. “They come from families with too many children,” she said, “gang violence in their former home. They have no money here because they’re supporting family back home.

"People struggle because they aren’t emotionally or spiritually equipped to deal with life's circumstances, not even ordinary bumps in the road. I see a lot of stress and pain, but not all from combat. Suicidal thoughts, domestic abuse, alcoholism. These problems came with them. It isn’t a uniquely military issue. It’s people, it’s life. The military is a microcosm.”

A college professor said many students slog through four-year degrees with little hope of getting a job after graduation. “A lot of students ... would do better getting a vocational education,” he said. But they need the tuition assistance and loans in order to live.

Even then, the university's food pantry distributes more food to students every year, said a campus staffer, adding, “We see students going through the food line several times; this can be the only food they get.” A local Baptist congregation hands out Pop-Tarts just so students will have something to eat.

“I don't think we understand the magnitude of hunger out there,” said a retired chaplain, estimating that 25 percent of seniors go to bed hungry.

Selling a house here is difficult, said a local realty agent. Foreclosures are high, especially among military families who bought more than they could afford and then were reassigned.

Even though Clarksville advertises itself as a “great place for retirement,” that is mostly untrue, participants said. One exception is hospice, said a man who is charged with caring for his mentally disabled mother, after his five siblings bailed on him.

“Substance abuse is a huge problem,” said a veteran pastor. The Army officer described an epidemic of “binge drinking” among soldiers.

It went on like this for nearly three hours, while the team members from Trinity took notes. This is what guests described in a middle American city of 133,000, where income levels are relatively high, schools relatively good and churches still largely functional.

The next phase in this planning team’s work just got a lot more serious.


Patricia Kennedy

Patricia Kennedy

Posted at 12:12 pm (U.S. Eastern) 4/9/2013

I love the question: If you stood on the edge of your church's property and looked outward, rather than inward as we usually do, what would you see? Reminds me of a church in Denver that cancelled services one Sunday and just sent people out in teams to walk through the neighborhoods to see what was going on.  The result was the church created a food pantry and meals for the homeless and seniors.  Jesus said there are none so blind as those who will not see. What I find so frustrating is the resistance to asking the question.  There is so much focus on the building in many churches and keeping the same activities going year after year.  The usual question is how will we pay the bills instead of why are we here? With no sense of real purpose people drift away from the church until the pews are so empty there is no one to either pay the bills or do ministry.

Pamela Russell

Pamela Russell

Posted at 5:05 pm (U.S. Eastern) 4/9/2013

Amen to this story. This is indeed what we see from our church. And Amen again to the last sentence. How does the congregation look honestly at the struggles in plain sight? How do we understand the work of congregational life, the work of the Holy Spirit, so that it includes walking with, healing, and empowering those who face layer upon layer of challenge?

Linda Worden

Linda Worden

Posted at 8:49 pm (U.S. Eastern) 4/9/2013

It is hard to balance maintaining a congregation as an institution and reaching out to the surrounding community.  All too often, I think we fall into the trap of ignoring the surrounding community and just focusing on our own internal issues.  All of Patricia's points are well taken.

Print subscribers and supporting Web members may comment.

Log in or Subscribe to comment.

text size:

this page: email | print

March issue

MARCH issue:

All are welcome