Local churches address poverty issues

Victoria Strang, director of the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty, delivers a sermon at Wakefield Baptist Church Sunday during Poverty in the Pulpits. 

SOUTH KINGSTOWN—Across Narragansett and South Kingstown Sunday, congregations devoted their worships to issues surrounding poverty during Poverty in the Pulpits.

“It’s important to keep people aware that [poverty] is there,” said John Lord, director of ministry at St. Peter’s by the Sea in Narragansett. “It reminds us of what we’re commanded to do. We’re commanded to love our neighbor.” 

Coordinated by the South County Poverty and Faith Group of the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty (RIICRP), Poverty in the Pulpits was organized as an effort to shine light on issues of poverty in South County.

Five congregations between South Kingstown and Narragansett participated Sunday, including Kingston Congregational Church, Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, St. Peter’s by-the-Sea, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of South County (UUCSC) and Wakefield Baptist Church.

“I think it’s important that groups that are doing that work [to fight poverty] work together—talk to each other, find out what each other is doing and learn from each other,” Lord said. 

While Rhode Island has the highest poverty rate out of its New England counterparts—12.8 percent of Rhode Islanders are living in poverty—in Washington County, one in 10 people is living on an income lower than the federal poverty level.

A family of three living on less than $20,420 per year is considered to be in poverty.

“Narragansett—and South County—for the most part is wealthy,” Lord said. “But nestled within are huge pockets of people who are in need.”

Founded in 2008 as part of a national faith-based initiative to cut poverty in half by 2020, the RIICRP aims to highlight the systemic issues underlying poverty. And by bringing issues of poverty into the pulpit, Victoria Strang, director of the RIICRP, said issues of poverty can be brought to the fore. 

In her guest sermon at Wakefield Baptist Church, Strang compared miracles depicted in scripture with the myriad of small actions one can take to lend a hand to community members in need. 

“When you bring food to the food pantry or items to the Jonnycake Center you are helping to feed someone,” Strang said, standing at the pulpit Sunday. “When you volunteer with groups like Welcome House, you are helping provide people with shelter and a community to help them get back on their feet.”

Rev. David Helfer of the UUCSC expressed a similar sentiment, noting that “all scripture indicates that our role is to care for the those most disenfranchised.” 

“That doesn’t mean caring for them, but about them,” he continued. “To recognize their inherent worth and dignity, and to understand that we are not different, separate, or better than anyone else. Our faith invites, cajoles, and demands that we work toward a more just world, one in which food, shelter, and opportunity is a given, for all.”

Poverty in the Pulpits was meant also to draw attention to the local organizations fighting issues like food insecurity and homelessness. In South Kingstown, the Jonnycake Center of Peace Dale and the Welcome House of South County each play a critical role supporting residents of South Kingstown and Narragansett. 

“The faith community has been deeply involved with the Jonnycake Center since it was founded in 1974,” said Kate Brewster, director of the Jonnycake Center. 

“Today,” continued Brewster, who was a guest speaker at Kingston Congregational Church Sunday, “that tradition continues through volunteerism, donations of food and funds, and through the continued teachings and prayers for social and economic justice.”

According to its 2016 annual report, the food pantry at Jonnycake Center of Peace Dale distributed 278,000 pounds of food to 2,025 visitors that year, representing an increase of around 30 percent over the previous year.  

And at Welcome House, 230 individuals were served last year through the organization’s shelter and housing programs. 

At St. Peter’s by the Sea, the community market provides food and other essentials to residents in need, no questions asked. 

Lord estimated that each week between 40 and 50 families visit the community market. 

“It’s always been important to me that you reach out to folks in need—whatever kind of need it is,” he added. 

At UUCSC, supplies are currently being collected to make toiletry kits for those experiencing homelessness. The Wakefield Baptist Church collects food in its “red wagon” each week, and the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd makes quilts, collects food for Jonnycake and hosts the South County Poverty and Faith Group. Kingston Congregational Church gives to anti-poverty organizations both locally and nationally.  

But Lord added that he prefers not to refer to the important work being done to reduce the effects of poverty “giving back to society.” He said that tends to give a connotation of people giving out of necessity.

“For me, that’s not why you do it,” he said. “It allows you to reach out and get to know people—you do it because you can do it.”

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