Conducting their third capital-fund drive in the past 10 years, members of Congregational UCC in Rochester, Mich., could have felt a pinch when the United Church of Christ announced its hunger-fighting Mission:1 campaign.
"We didn't feel that it was fair to ask our people for money, so we asked them to donate food," said the Rev. David Wheeler, in his 10th year as pastor of the suburban Detroit church. "They did so very, very, very generously."
To the tune of 3,125 items of food.
Now the church is collecting food to provide Christmas baskets for 125 people, as well as $20 gift cards for everyone receiving a basket so that they may buy meat for their holiday dinners. The baskets include green beans, soups, tuna, macaroni and cheese, stuffing mix, fruit, gravy, Jell-O, cranberry sauce, jam, peanut butter, bread, cereal and tea.
"The congregation took it on themselves to do the food baskets for Christmas instead of relying on the food pantry," said Wheeler. "We wanted to do the food baskets in relationship to Mission:1."
Wheeler said the pantry serves about 50 families a week. "Because of the increased need for food in the community, the shelves are pretty bare," said Wheeler, adding that as of Nov. 22, about half of the food for the baskets had been collected.
"With Mission:1, there's a lot of extra incentive. We've had a food pantry here for 50 years. It's the life breath of our church to be able to respond to people in need, providing food for them."
Wheeler said one generous member has dropped off $200 worth of gift cards. "It was most amazing. The folks here are very supportive of our food ministries," said Wheeler of his 600-member congregation.
Food-pantry operations have expanded significantly over the last six or seven years, said Wheeler. A wing added to the church in 2007-2008 included a sanctuary and a 2,000-square-foot warehouse for the food pantry. "That was a big, big job for us in recognition of the needs in the community that were going to grow," he said.
The church is serving about 1,500 families this year, and increase of one-third from previous years, said Wheeler. "In a suburban area like this, that's pretty significant," he said. "This year especially, the amount of food that's been on our shelves and the amount of donations the community has been able to offer have had a limit."
Rich in its ties to the past –– established in 1827 as the first Congregational-based church in Michigan –– the church has "quite a focus on the future," said Wheeler.
"I thought Mission:1 was a wonderful emphasis by our entire church, and I liked that it was both meeting immediate needs and looking at social-justice needs to change policy," he said. "We will be able to participate more fully in the years ahead and be more engaged in the study of the roots of hunger."
"I like it, and I hope it continues."