The Rev. David Akers stood in the pulpit one Sunday in September and challenged his Smyrna UCC congregation in Canby, Ore., to collect 11,111 items of food for the UCC's Mission:1 campaign to end hunger.
Three weeks later, he stood in front of a mirror. "I thought, 'Oh, my God, what a stupid goal!'"
Apparently, it made all the sense in the world to the congregation self-described as "the little country church with a big global heart." The 100 members of the church tucked away among farmlands and hazelnut trees 20 miles south of Portland amassed12,772 cans of food.
"I looked at the Mission:1 project and said, 'Well, we could have a goal of 1,111 cans,'" recalled Akers, Smyrna pastor for the past 4½ years. "But I know Smyrna. I know that every Thanksgiving we collect about 1,000 cans. So 1,111 would be a wimpy goal.
"They all looked at me like I was from another planet when I said 11,111 cans by Oct. 23. And then we just kind of got about doing it."
Akers said he handed each congregant an envelope containing a $10 bill. "I said, 'See if you can make it grow by Oct. 23.' I handed out a total of $800 and got back about $5,000."
The outpouring enabled the church to order a truckload of cans from a local grocery outlet store to be delivered to the local food bank.
"I was most proud of the kids," said Akers. "One fifth-grader took his $10, bought crafts materials and made key chains. He sold them to his grandparents and uncles and aunts, and raised about $100. "
Akers said a couple of youths held a neighborhood bake sale out in the yard and raised nearly $200. "And two or three of the ladies baked cookies and sold 'em and sold 'em and sold 'em."
Describing Smyrna as "not as liberal most UCC churches," Akers noted that when the chips are down, everyone is on the same page.
"We're not Open and Affirming, we're out in the country, half the people belong to the church because their grandparents did, and they can't figure out why we're so liberal," said Akers. "But when it comes to collecting things for the homeless or the starving, we all get on board. It's pretty cool."
The Mission:1 experience has Akers rethinking an old tradition at Smyrna.
"We've always collected food in a garbage can in the friendship hall. But I think we're going to make a little bit more of a public display of it every Sunday in the sanctuary, of how much food we bring in, to keep reminding people that the needs are pretty great."