RALEIGH — The Rev. Ben Williams started noticing the effects of the recession at his church door this year.
People came by almost every day with stories of lost jobs, overdue bills and bare pantries.
On Feb. 15, he mounted the pulpit with a fervent plea: The church cannot sit idly by, he said, "not on my watch. Not as your pastor."
With that, he challenged the members of St. Mark's United Methodist Church to start a ministry for people living in the church's immediate vicinity, off Six Forks Road. Taking as their cue a passage from the New Testament in which Jesus stretched out his hand to touch a leper, the congregation named its new effort the "Stretching Out Our Hands" initiative.
While the recession's effect has ranged from difficult to disastrous for many people, it has resulted in at least one positive change. Churches across the country and the Triangle have stepped up to the challenge and created novel programs to help their neighbors.
Churches have always had support groups for job seekers, but since the recession, many have beefed up these programs. One of the region's largest support groups for job seekers meets at Cary's Colonial Baptist Church. Other congregations, including St. Andrews Presbyterian in Raleigh, offer unemployed or underemployed people chances to meet with professionals in different fields.
Next month, St. Francis United Methodist Church in Cary will offer its second regional conference for clergy and volunteers who run programs offering emergency assistance to the needy. The idea for the conference was born last year as a result of the recession.
St. Mark's program, which got its start in the spring, isn't the first or the biggest of these efforts. But it's an example of the community outreach inspired by the economic crisis.
"Recession or no recession, there are plenty of people out there who have a need," said Jeff Wuchich, a volunteer at St. Mark's. "It's our way of growing into the community."
At the heart of St. Mark's program is a monthly "Soup on Sunday" event, in which the church prepares a simple home-cooked meal for anyone who wants it. Church volunteers purposely prepare extra food and take it to Moore Square in downtown Raleigh and to The Healing Place, a recovery and rehabilitation center for homeless people.
At Sunday's meal, Dan Forrest, a recovering alcoholic, helped himself to chicken casserole, string beans and bread, sitting down to eat at a round table in the company of church members and their children. He was in the neighborhood for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, he said, and decided to take advantage of a free meal.
After the meal, there's a support group for jobless people in the North Hills area. Members of the community can use a prayer room, where they can sit down with a minister and privately share their worries and concerns.
On this Sunday, 65-year-old Raleigh resident Van Wood came by to ask for help in finding part-time work.
A retired businessman, Wood said he needed to supplement his income. Two church volunteers sitting across from him in a Sunday school class offered him a copy of the job-hunting guide "What Color is Your Parachute?" They showered him with tips and encouragement.
Responding to Wood's concern that he was too old to find work, volunteer Ginny Watson told Wood, "You can sell them on your proven reliability." Although information technology jobs tend to go to younger people, she said, there are plenty of opportunities out there. "It's a matter of finding other industries that are open to it," Watson said.
The church is seeing results from its program, which includes access to computers, help with resume-writing and a food pantry.
Thy Nguyen came to the church a few months ago after noticing a sign outside the sanctuary advertising free use of a computer.
Nguyen, a 49-year-old father of three, doesn't own a computer and was recently laid off. Church members helped him find a job as an electrical technician at Eaton, a company that makes electrical power devices. "This is the best job I've ever had," Nguyen said.
While members of St. Mark's have always partnered with recognized groups offering assistance, such as the Wake Interfaith Hospitality Program and the North Raleigh Ministries, this added initiative has reinforced their feelings about outreach.
Even 9-year-old Sophie Zeiss feels good about it. Sophie told her father, Bill Zeiss, that the congregation could offer a "bread box with a loaf of bread and peanut butter and jelly" to people who need help. The new church pantry is called "Sophie's Bread Box." People needing groceries can come to the church and get a bag full of food.
"One of the things we've learned as Christians is that it's not about us," said Jim Jones, one of the leaders of the initiative. "It's about helping others."
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