Meeting Needs With Dignity5 min read

After seven years of giving away food to the community (a total of 275 tons), Pastor Ed Doerner of Messiah, Midland shared that the congregation decided to interview all the people who received the food. One woman said she hated the food giveaway because “You dictate what we eat; a lot of it is expired, and some of it isn’t even healthy.” The interview was a reality check for Doerner. He then asked what they wanted, and the woman said, “We want a store we can afford.”

This woman represents the population known by the acronym ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed). This segment of the population (25%) is comprised of those whose income is above the poverty level but still has a hard time paying its bills. Federal guidelines distinguish three people groups and Doerner has attached a noun to each segment.

  1. The poor = charity. These families live in poverty. They have an income of $27,750 or less and are the ones who depend on charity. They must frequent foodbanks and giveaways to survive.
  2. ALICE = dignity. This group’s income is more than the poor, but less than $64,000 (in Michigan). These individuals want to be able to provide for their families but would rather go without than accept charity. ALICE people are trying to survive but they don’t make enough money to pay all their bills. A survival budget for ALICE families includes housing, transportation, food, childcare, health care, technology (cell phones), miscellaneous, and taxes.
  3. The above $64,000 group = altruism. They really want their life to matter; they want to do something for someone else.

A typical scenario in our society is described by Doerner: “If you make $64K or more and want to make a difference, you are probably giving something to somebody for free, and this creates all kinds of issues because if you give and another receives, you are not on equal terms anymore. This hurts people’s dignity.”

Messiah, Midland has started several ministries to serve the ALICE population, one of which is a grocery store where they buy wholesale food and sell it at cost plus 5 cents so people can afford to buy what they need and not feel robbed of their dignity. Doerner says, “they need the church to step in and help them protect their dignity by giving them the goods and services they need at a price that they can actually afford.” Along those lines, Messiah also operates a licensed automotive repair facility that works on about 1,500 vehicles a year. They have a car dealership and also an appliance store which resells refurbished appliances that were donated. The appliance store employs people with barriers to employment such as those coming out of prison or drug or alcohol rehab. The church also runs a childcare center, a recovery ministry for those with addictions, and they just started a health care clinic where people pay no more than $40 for a visit. For Christmas, they collect nice toys and sell them for very low prices that people can afford. Community members whose income is above $64K get involved by volunteering, by donating goods and services.

Doerner says they have noticed that, at the grocery store, the poverty group (13% of the population) rise up and are happy to be able to pay what they can afford for the food, and then they walk away with extra food that volunteers give away. Notably, ALICE people also volunteer their time and help at the store.

This compassionate ministry also seeks ways to introduce people to Jesus through relationships. Volunteers have a genuine interest in people and begin by asking simple questions like, “How are you doing?” as a catalyst for interactions and for prayer. According to Doerner, the question, “Can I pray with you?” is a daily occurrence between all the ministries. One of his favorite stories is that of a delivery driver named Jeremiah who had been driving parts to the automotive shop for a long time and they knew him by name. One day when he came in, Doerner, who was working at the shop, noticed he was looking sad and asked how he was doing. Jeremiah said his grandfather had passed away. Doerner talked and prayed with him that day. A few weeks later, Jeremiah came in and asked if Doerner was the pastor of the church. Doerner said yes, and Jeremiah said, “I want to be baptized.”

Doerner was the lead person in beginning these ministries because, as he says, “I happen to see a need and I’m pretty relentless that I will figure out a way to meet the need with dignity.” Today, he sees his role as more of a support to the volunteers who are interacting with clients. He tries to stop by the grocery store every day. He also drives to Detroit once about every six weeks to talk to the workers in a warehouse for 10 minutes. They don’t understand the concept of a grocery store that doesn’t make any money, but they are very interested in it. He has built relationships with them in the last 5 years and feels comfortable asking about their wives, children, and specific situations, and prays with them.

To hear a more detailed account of this ministry, listen to two Michigan District Innovative Missional Ministry podcast episodes regarding the ALICE population here: Part 1 and Part 2.

To learn more about how to implement a similar type of ministry, Doerner invites you to visit Messiah, Midland to understand its philosophies to get the whole picture.

If you are wondering how to finance such a ministry, the Michigan District offers grants called StartNew Returnable Funding and StartNew Explorer. These are resources to enable ministries to launch new ministries which support our common goal of creating opportunities for sharing the Gospel. To learn more, click here.

Photo © monkeybusinessimages/iStock

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About the Author

This blog was published by the Communications Department of the Michigan District, LCMS.

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