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Grants that get results

Funds given by Presbyterians are turning hopeful visions into  life-changing realities for people across the nation

A group of people

Giving back: Last summer, Church in the Tetons regularly contributed a dozen or more volunteers to join others in the community in building houses for Habitat for Humanity. Photo courtesy of Church in the Tetons.

The first suicide came just six months after Presbyterian pastor Ian Noyes arrived in Driggs, Idaho, to lead the fledgling Church in the Tetons. Nine more followed within a year, devastating the small community. While each death was unique, many stemmed in part from the financial crisis that erupted in 2008 and hit the once-booming Teton Valley community especially hard.

None of victims was connected to the Church in the Tetons, but several families asked Noyes to handle their loved one’s funeral. “I’ve done five funerals since I’ve been here, and four of them have been suicides,” he says. “As a minister, you’re privileged to be invited into these really broken places in people’s lives. It was a tremendous opportunity to share the love of Jesus Christ.”

That opportunity was made possible in part by $100,000 in Mission Program Grant funding from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and $125,000 from Kendall Presbytery. The grant support enabled Church in the Tetons to call Noyes as pastor in late 2009. Prior to that, the congregation had been getting by through the leadership of area ministers who would travel from up to three hours away to lead evening worship services—“our connectional church in action,” Noyes says.

Mission Program Grants, which fund new church development and transformation of existing congregations, and Self-Development of People grants, which empower groups seeking to overcome poverty, injustice and oppression, also demonstrate connectionalism in action. In different ways, both grant programs are transforming communities, one relationship at a time.

A force for good

A group of young children

Easter fun: Girls gathered to hunt eggs after last year’s Easter service at Church in the Tetons. The congregation has received a $100,000 Mission Program Grant from the PC(USA). Photo courtesy of Church in the Tetons.

Many of the relationships Noyes has formed stemmed from the community’s spate of suicides. Early on, he brought together the local hospital administrator, school superintendent, sheriff and mental health coalition chair to help craft a unified response to the issue. Out of their meeting grew the Teton Valley Suicide Prevention Task Force, which is developing strategies to reduce the number of suicides and to deal with the aftermath of suicides.

Something else grew out of that meeting: a recognition among local residents that the new congregation could be a force for good in the community.

“Getting involved in that way said a lot about what the church can do and does,” Noyes says. “It invited us into conversations with people we weren’t in conversation with before.”

Some of those people were from the Mormon Church, the area’s predominant faith tradition. Others were nonbelievers, nonchurchgoers or disaffected Christians—the kinds of people often more likely to be reached by nimble new churches than by established congregations.

“We forget what a huge threshold it is for people to come to a church,” Noyes says. “New church developments are not waiting for people to cross that threshold; they are the ones crossing the threshold and going out into the community and building relationships.”

Because grant money allows him to be a full-time pastor, Noyes doesn’t have to worry about the distractions and time constraints his colleagues who work multiple jobs face. But he still has to worry about money. The $100,000 grant is given over a five-year period (2009–2013) in decreasing installments. Noyes’ congregation has developed a five-year sustainability plan based on a 20-percent annual increase in giving by members.

Tim McCallister, associate in the PC(USA) office that administers Mission Program Grants, says new-church grants have sometimes given congregations a false sense of security. “The grants we’re giving now are much more modest, which creates a funding cliff from the beginning,” he says. “If you’re not really planning for what’s next, you’re going to know it very quickly.”

The Church in the Tetons is planning for what’s next—and is actually a year ahead of schedule on internal giving. More important, the relationships it has built are bearing fruit. For example, among those who now attend the church are two of the people from Noyes’ first suicide-prevention meeting.

Power to the people

Like Mission Program Grants, the denomination’s Self-Development of People (SDOP) grants serve people where they live. And where people live is often the problem, as Shanna Rogers knows all too well.

When she moved to Lewiston, Maine, four years ago, Rogers looked at 26 apartments before finding one she could afford that seemed clean and safe enough for her children. Some apartments she looked at had broken windows; others were filthy; a few still held the previous occupants’ furniture. She says the experience made her concerned about “what passed for healthy and safe housing here in Lewiston.”

Sometimes people ask us about projects that have failed. For me, almost none of them fail. Just the act of people coming together to act on a particular issue is a step in the right direction.

—Cynthia White, coordinator of the PC(USA)’s Self-Development of People program

Rogers’ concerns led her to Visible Community, a grassroots organization that focuses on empowering residents and improving living conditions in downtown Lewiston. She became resident coordinator and then supervisor of the group’s Neighborhood Housing League, which was launched by a $20,000 SDOP grant in 2010. An earlier $20,000 grant from SDOP (in 2006) had enabled Visible Community to develop what it calls the People’s Downtown Master Plan.

Rogers says the group has worked for better enforcement of housing codes, realizing this would address multiple issues—from the substandard housing she’d encountered to the problem of landlords not treating tenants with respect. After eight months of lobbying, the city agreed to fund a new code-enforcement officer (even though it had been forced to lay off 22 other workers over a two-year period). “It was a huge win for us and the community,” Rogers says.

Rogers’ program also recruits block captains who train fellow tenants on their rights and responsibilities and help mediate disputes with landlords. Many of the block captains come from Lewiston’s growing immigrant community. Hussein Muktar, a Somali refugee who is a block captain, exemplifies the empowerment the Visible Community seeks to foster, Rogers says.

“He went from somebody who’d just gotten his citizenship and wasn’t sure what that meant or how to participate to gaining the skills and confidence to speak in front of our city council and to speak at a press conference,” she says. “He really became a voice for the problems of housing downtown and for positive change in that area.”

That sort of personal transformation is just what the SDOP grants are intended to create, says the program’s coordinator, Cynthia White. “Sometimes people ask us about projects that have failed. For me, almost none of them fail. Just the act of people coming together to act on a particular issue is a step in the right direction,” she says.

SDOP grants, which are funded by the One Great Hour of Sharing offering, are often the first funding a group receives, says White, which means the church plays a key role in transforming communities. “I think it’s important for members of the Presbyterian Church to know that their One Great Hour of Sharing giving really does make a difference,” White says. “It is making a difference across the United States and in other parts of the world. People are really appreciative that the church cares.”

Taking it to the streets

People around a campfire

Campfire fellowship: Church in the Tetons members, from left, David Roberts, Isaac Noyes, Melanie Fischel, Samuel Roberts and Mara Roberts on an outing in Teton Canyon. Photo courtesy of Church in the Tetons.

Another Mission Program Grant recipient, the House of Manna, serves one of Pittsburgh’s toughest neighborhoods. When the weather allows, the congregation leaves its rented space in the Greater Pittsburgh Coliseum to feed homeless and hungry people—and to worship—on a street corner better known for drug deals and gang squabbles.

“We serve everyday people: the doctor, the drug dealer, the professional, the prostitute, the lawmaker and the lawbreakers,” says the church’s pastor, Eugene Blackwell. “If they don’t know Christ, we want to introduce them to Christ. If they knew Christ once, we want to reintroduce them.”

Blackwell’s wife, Dina, says the congregation’s outreach is about more than food. “Poor people have given up—not on God but on the church. We want them to know that we serve a good God who comes to them,” she says.

To spread its message, the House of Manna—which is receiving $50,000 in Mission Program Grant funding, $137,000 from Pittsburgh Presbytery and $55,000 from the Synod of the Trinity—takes church to the people. Members hold Bible studies in the local library. They log hundreds of weekly contacts with neighbors on the street, in community centers and at local businesses. They work with community organizations to provide teen programs, basketball camps, baseball leagues, mentoring and jobs.

House of Manna multiplies its reach through ties with a dozen suburban congregations that sponsor specific ministries and provide meals for House of Manna’s Friday-night musical “celebrations.” Members of these partner churches usually find themselves receiving far more than they give, says Vera White, director of new church development for Pittsburgh Presbytery. “A lot of people from the suburban congregations have caught the vision and become more alive in their faith.”

One of them described his House of Manna experience in a letter to the congregation. “I experience joy in little snapshots, five or 10 seconds at a time,” he wrote. “Those individual snapshots are beginning to form a compelling new ‘me’ for me, and each week it becomes more compelling. At the age of 68, I am on the most exciting journey of my life. Thank you, all of you, for holding my hand as I grow.”

Mark Ray is a freelance writer based in Louisville, Ky.

Did you know?

Most congregational expenditures (73%) go to local administrative expenses (salaries, mortgage, insurance, utilities, etc.); only 6% go to local mission. Only 3% of congregational funds go to presbytery, synod and General Assembly mission. The other 18% is divided among capital expenditures, per capita apportionment and non-PC(USA) mission.

Less than ½ cent of every dollar contributed by Presbyterians in 2010 went to Basic Mission Support to fund the work of the General Assembly Mission Council, the PC(USA)’s mission agency.

Did you know?

Contributions to the regular budgets of congregations averaged $1,122 per member in 2010—up a bit from 2005 ($1,099). Total receipts of congregations are also up.

In a recent year, two-thirds of members gave food (66%) and money (68%) to a food pantry, soup kitchen or other local hunger program.

More than 80% of funds received by congregations come from individuals, with most of that in contributions for the regular budget (88%) and the rest (12%) for capital and building funds.

Data compiled by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Research Services office from denominational reports and surveys.

Learn more

Mission Program Grants provide supplemental, short-term and start-up funding for new congregations and for presbyteries that seek to transform existing congregations. The grants are administered by the Mission Development Resource Committee. Last year, 129 grants totaling $2,076,510 were awarded. To apply for a grant, donate to support the grants or for more information, visit the Mission Program Grants website.

Self-Development of People grants are designed to empower poor, oppressed and disadvantaged people to change the structures that perpetuate poverty, oppression and injustice. The grants are funded by the One Great Hour of Sharing offering and administered by the PC(USA)’s National Committee on the Self-Development of People. Last year, grants totaling $972,804 were given to support 38 community development projects. For more information, visit the Self-Development of People website.


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