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Our sermons preached in various settings. 

Non Toxic and Sustainable Outreach Models and the St. Paul's CO-OP

Alison Fischer

Alison and Jason Fischer

November 15, 2015

United Universalist Fellowship of Kern County – Guest Preachers

Non Toxic Outreach Ministry

Lord we ask you today to open our hearts and open our minds to truth and light, Amen. Hello we are Alison and Jason Fischer and we are two of the four co-founders of the St. Paul's CO-OP outreach ministry at St.Paul's Episcopal Church.

The CO-OP was developed when Grace Episcopal joined with St. Paul's in our current down town location and our congregation was interested in a food pantry outreach.  In our search to find the best model that would fit our community we were introduced to Robert Lupton's  Toxic Charities - How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) and Eric Law's Holy Currencies.  Our formation group quickly decided that these were the best approaches for how our congregation wanted to minister to the down town community.

This approach also fosters our belief that we are the hands and feet of God working in the world and that our mission is to preach the gospel and when necessary use words.   

Lupton proposes an Oath for Compassionate Service which offers six key guidelines:

(1) Never do for the poor what they can do for themselves;

(2) Limit one-way giving to emergencies;

(3) Empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements;

(4) Subordinate self-interest to the needs of those being served;

(5) Listen closely to those you seek to help;

(6) Above all, do no harm.

Eric Law is an Episcopal priest who serves as the director of the Kaleidoscope Institute, which is an incredibly successful outreach in the L.A. area.  Holy currencies is his model of outreach that teaches churches "to see abundance and a flow of blessings where we usually would see limits and scarcity".

Law models this through a cycle of blessings that show the circular relationship of the cycles of Time and Place, Leadership, Relationship, Truth, Wellness and Money to help for sustainable missional ministry.  Which promotes a methodology for a healthy mission that can survive on its own without the support of time, money and leadership outside of the ministry to allow it to flourish.  

We chose to approach this ministry as a Cooperative rather than a pantry.  The CO-OP seeks to be a resource to help God’s most vulnerable sheep find the path of righteousness.  We are to provide the love and respect which all God’s children deserve with intentional commitment and compassionate interaction.  This model addresses the long term needs of our community and creates possibilities that lead out of poverty and circumstance, rather than simply handing out groceries as a short term solution that creates a system of reliance.

Our goal is to empower our customers based on shared responsibility, mutual support, and accountability through the process of exchange rather than simply offering one way giving. Customers have two options to participate in either our Buying Club or Work Program. We offer groceries, fresh produce grown from local farmers, socks, shoes, underwear, dog food, cat food, baby food, diapers, and toiletries every Sunday.

Buying Club payments are $5.00, $3.00, and $1.00 or 90, 60, or 30 minutes of your time for each total transaction.  Members may receive produce, groceries, and clothing once a week. Every dollar earned from the Buying Club payments are directly turned around into buying more items for the CO-OP distribution.

The Work Program allows the opportunity to earn items through any type of work accomplished through physical needs of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and The St. Paul's CO-OP.  The Work Program participants will tend to duties such as distribution in both the clothing Soul Shop and the Food Pantry, collection of produce, sorting through donations, accounting, recipe writing and distribution, sweeping the grounds or parking lots, tending to the flower beds, and assisting in P.R. efforts.

Initially, we received backlash for requiring investment of some sort and it was mostly from the people sleeping in comfortable beds and with food on their tables.  It is common for our members to thank us for allowing them to have more dignity to the process and earning their items through work or through payments.  Preservation of pride is of the utmost importance when you have very little to claim as your own.  Our members’ investment of their time and resources into our program also allow us to build relationships with them and achieve the greater goal of improving and addressing the reasons as to why our services are needed in the first place.  We know we are being productive when homeless drug addicts give us more than the required amount saying “I know if I don’t give this to you, I’ll spend it on drugs and alcohol and this helps another person eat.”  The investment also allows us to build relationships with individuals and provide the opportunity to help four members become sober and get off the streets. 

We have served close to 200 individuals and families, some whom are returning customers and others who are not.   Half of our members are housed while the other half are without constant and stable shelter.  We serve elderly who are having to choose between proper nutrition and medications and also often happen to be raising their grandchildren.  We work with drug addicts, alcoholics, individuals living with mental illness, prostitutes, survivors of domestic violence, many experiencing some type of disability, and people who simply aren’t working at a livable wage.  We strive to provide every individual with sincerity, equality, and respect.  

The CO-OP has taught us that outreach efforts such as ours are difficult because ministering to those in their most vulnerable state requires thick skin and an empathetic heart.  Building relationships and caring for an individual as a family member rather than a burden is exactly where the church is to step in our society and tend to the flock. 

Robert Lupton shared a story of a inner city Christmas gift outreach.  His ministry team was going house to house passing out presents to those that could not afford them.  Halfway through their deliveries, Lupton noticed that many fathers were leaving the rooms when they showed up.  He realized that he was shaming the parents and reinforcing their insecurity that they were incapable of properly providing for their families and that their delivery, while good intentioned was creating a toxic relationship.   So, the following year, instead of passing out presents, Lupton's group created a toy store where families could work and then select the presents that they had earned.  This way, it was a two way exchange.  No one was shamed, no one was put on a higher level than another.  When Christmas came around, the families had bought the presents with their time and commitment.

This story resonated strongly with us.

It wasn't long after opening the COOP that it became apparent that the community was in need of more than just food. This spurred the creation of the Soul Shop with offers clothing, shoes, household items, and even toys.  Again, all items are donated from our congregation and can be purchased with either their time and effort or money.  Things can be bartered and of course we have special offers to help uplift the community. 

If a person has a job interview, their business attire is free.  When children come in with their families, we have a bin of small toys to occupy themselves and if they behave well they can choose one toy to keep.  When someone moves into housing after being homeless, we celebrate by offering a house warming gift that caters to a furnishing need.  These efforts of good will and addressing issues and needs as they are presented, reinforce our commitment to the members and our relationships.  The thought behind this model is that these are actions that would be made towards our personal family and friends, and that is what we hope our members are able to consider themselves. 

At Saint Paul's, we feel it is important to acknowledge everyone around us as not just God's children, but an individual that carries with them the spirit of the divine.  It is a powerful practice to see God in all of those around you, to treat everyone with the respect that you would offer God and holy beings.  When the holidays come around, we are open.  We set up a formal dining table for Thanksgiving and serve everyone family style.  At Christmas and New Year’s Day, our doors are open the coffee is on and we invite our members to come in have some java and eat some donated baked goods.  We sit, we talk, we trade stories, and just hang out.  We do this because everyone deserves company and fellowship, especially on holidays.  The need to be shown that you are not a menace or not deserving of a smile and a conversation is a desire that lives in all of us. 

Just as in any relationship, the required investment of self creates experiences that trigger a range of emotion.  Sometimes, a person doesn't want to be helped, several of our members have died, people continue to make terrible decisions, people may be only interested in a hand out.  Sometimes, we are unable to truly help a person or we have to decline their plea for help because that would be irresponsible with improving their plight.  Even the right and most responsible decisions can cause heart ache and anxiety.  However, these grievances do not overshadow the joys that results from this ministry.  

The Theological emphasis of helping those in need is something that all major religions share.

The Yin Chi Wenh, the Taosist sacred text that is most often rendered as "The Tract of the Quiet Way" in English teaches the reader to:  

“Relieve people in distress as speedily as you must release a fish from a dry rill [lest he die]. Deliver people from danger as quickly as you must free a sparrow from a tight noose. Be compassionate to orphans and relieve widows. Respect the old and help the poor.”

In Cabala, the mystic path of Judaism, sets out in the Zohar that:

“When the Holy One loves a man, He sends him a present in the shape of a poor man, so that he should perform some good deed to him, through the merit of which he may draw a cord of grace.”

In Islam, The Hadith of Muslim states On the day of judgment God Most High will say, "Son of Adam, I was sick and you did not visit Me." He will reply, "My Lord, how could I visit Thee when Thou art the Lord of the Universe!" He will say, "Did you not know that My servant so-and-so was ill and yet you did not visit him? Did you not know that if you had visited him you soon would have found Me with him?"

The CO-Ops theological foundation comes from John 21:15-17:

15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” 16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”

We learned that the most productive thing that you can do is listen to the community and you will learn what is most needed from you.  These non-toxic approaches can work in various settings.  For instance, I (Ali) am the ministry operations coordinator at Children to Love International.  We work in Uganda, Romania and India helping fund and support orphanages and schools in the developing world that are seeking to become self-sustaining ministries.  However, we work beside our partners, not above. 

Community gardens are another great example of non-toxic ministries, because it is a collaborative effort whose bounty provides nutrition to the community as a whole.          

John Bon Jovi's Soul Kitchen, is a functioning restaurant that both feeds and provides jobs to the entire community.  Diners may pay for their dinners or receive a meal ticket from community service hours.  The Soul Kitchen also provides job training and placement in the restaurant industry for individuals that are seeking skilled employment.

Homeboys Inc, is a non-profit that runs a bakery and cafe for members of the community to receive job training and placement.  Many of these individuals are former gang members seeking a way out of the gang life and simply need job training to make that transition.  

Each outreach is unique, but shares the common principal of providing a hand up and not a hand out.  With this guiding philosophy, any church, any community can make an impact that will lead to greater community relations and spreading Love and Truth to those in need. 

Thank you.  Amen!