Yesterday was pretty hot in Pittsfield. The airport (yes, we have a small one) recorded 92 degrees as the day’s high, which for us is a furnace. Yesterday was also Third Thursday, the city’s monthly summer street festival. Music fills North Street, our major downtown street, as people wander up and down and back and forth to visit various vendors selling food or crafts and the many organizations promoting themselves. I was at the table for the Pittsfield Area Council of Congregations (PACC), an interfaith group.
We handed out flyers to people who looked even half interested in us. Overwhelmingly, people walked by with only a glance. I’m guessing we handed out a little more than a dozen flyers in three hours.
PACC has an emergency fuel fund which provides 100 gallons of heating oil as a one-time grant to families in need during the winter. We’re among several community organizations that provide emergency fuel assistance, including LIHEAP (Low Income Home Emergency Assistance Program) a federal program. People come to PACC through the Salvation Army as a last resort. Between December and April, 37 households received assistance from us. During the warm months, we help families with their utilities when they receive a shutoff notice.
The money primarily comes from PACC’s constituent congregations. We also get some money through fundraising (the gospel band at the United Methodist Church of Lenox did a fundraising concert in December at which I played violin). Honestly, we don’t get a lot of money, but we help as many as we can with what we get.
One person stopped at the table yesterday, and I gave him some information. He then told me he needed money for his electric bill. I told him that I didn’t know if we had money right now, but that he needed to go to the Salvation Army as a first step.
I hear a lot of people say, particularly as many of our local churches today are struggling financially, that we need to run the church like a business. Some would say we need to do a cost-benefit analysis. Thinking like that, however, misses the point.
Glibly, I ask, “Tell me how many businesses have been around for 2000 years?” Sure we’ve seen many local churches close their doors. We also see many local churches grappling with a financial reality that puts them at risk of closing without making changes to the way they conduct their ministries. Even denominations are facing major financial challenges.
But the Church has been around for almost 2000 years. Its beginnings as described in the Book of Acts reminds us how tenuous and almost foolish it was. Its history has had leadership that was corrupt and incompetent (and those are just the mildly bad descriptions) and has had wars and pogroms committed in its name. Yet, the Church has also been instrumental in ridding the world of slavery. The Church was instrumental in supporting women’s suffrage. Where would civil rights have gone in this country without the Church? The Church has consistently supported farm worker rights, most recently securing a living wage for the Immokalee workers (the ones who pick tomatoes for corporations such as Yum Brands, also known as Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Burger King, and Subways and currently in dispute with Trader Joe’s http://www.ciw-online.org/TJ_CA_Truth_Tour.html ).
Locally, churches have been places of refuge. Some people find shelter in the church because there is no where else in a community to turn. People come to get food from the food pantry or to eat a free meal at the community table. People passing through town come to the church to get gas money. Sometimes, people call us because no one else will listen to them. We might not be able to do anything for them, but just listening to them makes a difference in their lives more than you might think.
This is a terrible business model. Where is the return? What sort of investors would support a business that began under the reality of persecution, had leadership with real human frailty, stands with people whom society hardly values, and serves people who bring nothing to the table?
The church as a business… how long would a business operate that relied substantially on volunteers for labor and voluntary donations for revenue?
If I saw the church as a business, would I have stood on North Street yesterday afternoon to hand out a few more than a dozen flyers? My return, though, was a man who might be able to get a grant for his electricity – that’s something isn’t it?
Now if only businesses could run themselves like the church…