Downtown church charities survive amid uncertain economic times


Grace Lutheran Church, located on Third Street, has struggled financially since the Recession hit, but it has managed to increase its funding for outreach programs this year. (Evie Carpenter/DD)
The Great Recession cost many Americans their jobs during its 19-month course, leaving some homeless and jobless to depend on the generosity of others.

But many programs providing help for those struggling, like church outreach programs and relief funds, have been hit just as hard by the bad economy.

Despite the difficulties, Phoenix churches continue to operate projects that serve their community.

“That’s what God tells us we have to do. That’s the answer,” the Very Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely said. “The Bible is very clear. The Letter of James — ‘True religion is this,’ says James, the brother of Jesus. ‘To care for the widowed and orphaned.’”

Trinity Episcopal Cathedral

Trinity Episcopal Cathedral on Roosevelt Street spends 30 percent of its $700,000 annual budget on local outreach programs, Knisely said.

The church has been operating with a slight deficit because the church’s growth outnumbers the resources.

“Maybe we would have gotten more money and been able to raise more money if the recession hadn’t been as bad as it is, but I can’t tell,” Knisely said. “It may be the other way around. When times get bad, people tend to come back to church.”

The church has seen more Latinos without health-care coverage and jobs because of the recession, Knisely added.

The congregation has intervened and helped with co-pay through its budget’s discretionary fund, separate from the 30 percent of funds designated for outreach.

In 2009, Trinity began serving grocery bags filled with staple food items to 10 needy families once a month. The congregation was upset at hearing how some children only ate school meals and did not eat over the weekends. Members donated money to help pay for the food.

Fifty-three families are now recipients of these grocery bags, which are handed out privately by Trinity staff, Knisely said.

Trinity and St. Mary’s Food Bank also hold a Vegetable Day twice a month. Fresh vegetables from local farms are free to whoever comes by the church.

Although people are unemployed or looking for better jobs, they still help and donate money or their time, Knisely said. He has seen an increase in volunteers over the last couple years.

“People are very generous,” Knisely said. “Even if they have taken a pay cut, they still continue to support the church at the same level because they know the money is being used to do critically important things in the community.”

Trinity also opens its doors for the homeless who are looking to escape the heat. On heat advisory days, Trinity Hot Shots go out into the community with cases of water and food.

The church is also involved in Habitat for Humanity, Millennium Development Goals and overseas ministries in Africa, Haiti and Southern Mexico. Overseas projects are not under the same category as local outreach programs in the budget.

Knisely hopes the percentage of the church budget spent on outreach programs eventually reaches 50 percent. Until then, he has no intention of letting the economy affect the programs.

“We will not cut outreach because of budget shortfalls. That’s non-negotiable,” Knisely said. “That’s what God tells us we have to do. We’re here to give food to people. We’re not here necessarily to hire another secretary.”

Grace Lutheran Church

Grace Lutheran Church on Third Street has a $220,000 budget composed of designated and undesignated funds, Pastor Sarah Stadler-Ammon said.

Designated funds pay for church utilities and repairs, while undesignated funds go toward Vacation Bible School and other fellowship programs.

Solveig Muus, director of outreach, said the church was suffering financially three years ago.

“When the market went down, so did the dividends,” Muus said. “We realized we were very much in the hole. We were running low on money and had to tighten our belts and step up our efforts.”

The church started watching its use of office supplies more carefully and began sending the church newsletter through emails instead of printing paper.

Grace Lutheran has lost money for the past five years, but they are hoping to break even this year, Muus said.

Despite the economy, their four outreach programs have increased in volunteers and donations, she added.

“It’s pretty universal that donations to churches will decrease, but donations to specific programs within the church do not,” Muus said. “People will still give, regardless of the economy.”

Grace Lutheran Church partnered with 35 different churches and 10 organizations to help support their outreach programs. All but one of the partners are nonprofits.

“People come every day asking for help,” Stadler-Ammon said. “Even if there’s not food, if someone comes hungry, we try to find something. You help. That’s what Jesus said to do.”

Every Sunday Grace Lutheran hosts a pancake breakfast before the morning service. The breakfast is donated by congregations who come to serve the meal, while other resources are purchased either by Grace Lutheran or another volunteering church.

Grace Lutheran volunteers prepare a meal for the community on Wednesdays before Bible study starts. These Wednesday-night meals are grant-funded.

Heat Respite offers community members relief from the summer sun by opening church doors from June 18 through Aug. 31. Volunteers teach classes, show a movie or put together other activities for community members.

For the summer Heat Respite program, the church partners with Waste Not, a nonprofit organization that receives perishable food items from donors and delivers them throughout Maricopa County, Muus said.

Grace Lutheran also provides water bottles and sack lunches — donated by the community and congregation — to those out in the heat. Last summer 997 water cases were donated, Muus said.

ASU’s NP Healthcare—Grace is also located at Grace Lutheran Church. The church has let the clinic use its space for 11 years, free of charge. The clinic is funded by a grant through the Arizona Family Planning Council and serves low income, uninsured patients. The staff also mentors ASU undergraduate and graduate nursing students.

Stadler-Ammon and Muus said they hope to expand each program to reach more of the downtown Phoenix community.

“All are welcome,” Stadler-Ammon said. “I can’t speak for other churches, but here we mean it; all are welcome.”

Roosevelt Community Church

Roosevelt Community Church on First Street, began in 2005 with only five families. The church was helped financially by Camelback Bible Church until 2007, when Roosevelt became self-sustaining. It now hosts 150 people and several ministry programs, said Cindy Cloud, global outreach coordinator.

Roosevelt has done well financially throughout the recession by saving money where it can, Cloud added.

Cloud, also a volunteer accountant, said Roosevelt had a $232,700 budget last year and only spent $228,500. This year the budget is $242,700. Every year, 10 percent of the budget is spent on outreach programs.

A couple of years ago, the church paid people to clean the building, maintain the landscape and do accounting work. Cloud said the staff decided to save money by having rotating groups of members clean the church. Congregation members also volunteered to help with accounting and landscaping.

“They did a better job than what we were paying for,” Cloud said. “We decided instead of paying for services, more money should be spent on ministry.”

The church reaches out to the community and world because they are a Bible-based church, which encourages serving others, Cloud added.

Harmon Park is a program where church members go to the park on the weekends to build relationships with families who live in the area. Vacation Bible School, arts and crafts and Bible study are offered. Volunteers also play basketball or other sports with children.

On certain First Fridays, Roosevelt hosts a Christian artist, art show or a movie screening. They also host a concert series titled “Sound and Pound.” Christian artists from around the nation play at Roosevelt and share their testimonies. The musicians donate their time, but Roosevelt pays for the airfare.

I-58, which derives its name from Isaiah 58, is a pantry open to people visiting the church. It is stocked with water, snack packs and non-perishable foods.

“We feel that’s what Jesus calls us to do,” Cloud said. “To care for the orphans, widows, poor, downtrodden and reach to the community locally and to the ends of the earth.”

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Correction: March 6, 2012

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Grace Lutheran Church is hoping to make a profit this year. It later was clarified that the church only hopes to balance its budget because it is a nonprofit. Also, an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the church partnered with 10 corporations, not 10 organizations of which only one is not nonprofit.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the food donated to Grace Lutheran’s Wednesday-night meal was from the nonprofit Waste Not, but the meal is grant-funded. Waste Not partners with the church for its summer Heat Respite program. Also, an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that ASU’s NP Healthcare—Grace clinic was funded by the federal government. The clinic grant is through the Arizona Family Planning Council, a private nonprofit organization.