When Michele Causton, a member of Christ Episcopal Church in Stroudsburg, became worn down by having to repeatedly turn away people in need, she decided to do something about it.
“Although I’m a member of Christ Episcopal Church, I work at St. John’s Lutheran Church on the main street in town,” says Causton. “Because of the central location, there was a large stream of individuals coming in throughout the day every day of the week, and we were unable to help a lot of them.” Causton began talking to leadership at other local churches, and found they were having similar experiences of being unable to help those who came to their door. Declining membership, they said, had resulted in declining funds.
“It just really breaks my heart to constantly be in that situation of turning people away–you know, it really wears on you” says Causton. “And this church that I work at has a huge stained-glass window depicting Jesus knocking on the door. As these individuals kept coming in, that image came to mind — these people were Jesus knocking on the door. So I kept going back to that image, and that really inspired me to go out into the community to see exactly what was going on and if we were to refer these people to other agencies, would their needs be met.”
Causton started by working with the local clergy association to map out the agencies and resources operating within the community. Then, she began interviewing representatives from those agencies. “I would start by asking the agency if the church was present at any of their meetings or events, and the answer was always ‘no,’” says Causton. “One individual described the churches as always in ‘their own little silos,’ which was concerning.”
After speaking with the agencies, Cuaston was able to start offering more effective help to more people. “Once I got familiar with all the agencies and what services they offer, that started to alleviate some of the stress on my part of turning people away. At least I was able to start better referring them to other resources,” says Causton.
Next, Causton set about comparing the services that churches were providing with the assessments of community need conducted by United Way and other organizations. She learned that in Monroe County, where Stroudsburg is the county seat, no one is what she calls “a champion for the impoverished.”
“And I thought, ‘this is what we are called to do as church. This is what we should be doing,’” she says.
It quickly became clear there were disconnects between the type of help churches offered and the needs of the community. “We realized that every church within a two-block radius had a food pantry,” Causton says. “But no one was addressing housing or transportation, which, according to the community assessments, were the areas of highest need.”
Armed with this new understanding of the community’s needs, the clergy association is weighing its options. “Now we’re in the phase where we’re going to start saying, ‘Okay, is any congregation willing to let go of the food pantry? Let’s really assess how each food pantry is functioning, if it’s busy or not,’” Causton says. “So we’re really going start restructuring. And that is challenging because the individuals who started these ministries are understandably passionate, so it’s hard to let go. At the same time, if we’re truly called to meet the needs of the people, we’re called to do it intentionally. We’re trying to add those intentional planning pieces like you would see in community development, but bringing the church into it.”
Causton’s work was eye-opening for Christ Church’s rector, the Rev. Doug Moyer. “[W]e have been way too parochial in our perspective, and we think too much in terms of, ‘well we have a food pantry, and it’s our food pantry.’ It should be a food pantry for Monroe County, rather than for the people of Christ Episcopal Church. So, would it not make more sense to have a food pantry that all the faith communities contributed to and helped fund, helped maintain, and volunteer to distribute the food so we could possibly reach a greater population and be far more effective? And what other things could we do along similar lines that if we pooled together could have a similar impact? So let’s talk to the people that deal with this every day to find out where the greatest need is.”
Causton stresses the importance of partnering with agencies, like Bridges Out of Poverty, that look to people in poverty to set the course. “People living in poverty are being asked what they need, and are recognized as problem-solvers, not projects, or problems to be solved. It is so wrong for us to come in and say, ‘okay we’re going to fix your problem.’ This is a different way to do things, and I think that is a critical part. So instead of just handing a box of food to someone who comes to the food pantry, we need to be sitting with those individuals and asking them, ‘what can we do?’”
Causton, who is a candidate for the diaconate, reports that the Christ Church congregation has been receptive to this new way of thinking about outreach. “I always joke around that Jesus didn’t just get up in the morning and say to the disciples ‘what are you passionate about today, what do you want to work on?’” she says. “He led them to where the needs were, and those places were typically places the disciples wouldn’t have gone on their own.
“I really truly believe that if each little community like Stroudsburg was focused a little more inward and really got involved with our communities, we would make change in our towns, counties, nations and work our way out,” she says. “I’m hoping that’s what will come of this work.”