by Michele Le Doux Sakurai
“The more prevalent pastoral care is in the world,
the more profoundly we become established as community.”1
Fourteen months ago, I met with the chief executive of our healthcare network who announced, “Hunger is the greatest need in Stevens County, and I want you to do something about it.” There was a pregnant pause as I assessed whether he was actually serious. After all, what did I know about hunger in this rural county?
Hesitant, I replied, “OK, where would you like me to start?” Yes, he was very serious and his instructions were specific, “Gather together the stakeholders and identify their needs and gaps in service.” He provided me a list of organizations with the caveat, “If you want Community Benefit funds to get this group started, you can apply for grant money through regional funds. The grant requests are due in three weeks.” My head was spinning as I left his office, and I felt great trepidation. We had tried for 10 months to bring together a community forum on mental health and not been successful. I fully expected the same barriers of time and resources with developing a hunger coalition.
With prayer leading the way, I sent out invitations to all area food banks, Washington State University Extension Service, Rural Resources (a major support for the poor and vulnerable in three rural counties), Tri-County Health District, DSHS, the Ministerial Association (which helps to coordinate meals in churches each week), the library system, and the list goes on. At the first meeting, more than 20 people came and they taught me much about a county that has almost 14% unemployment (in the good months) and has the second largest stand down unit in the country (13% of our population are veterans).
They spoke of many people who live without indoor plumbing or electricity and often can’t get into town during the winter due to the snow. They shared the problem with bears breaking into freezers (that don’t fit inside trailer homes and are located outside). They spoke of obesity, diabetes and the inability to get fresh fruits and vegetables to the poor because food banks couldn’t keep fresh produce unless they had refrigerators. Over half of the county’s food banks have no system for refrigeration. I walked out of this meeting overwhelmed and saying to God, “Why me? I don’t have the answers and I don’t have the resources to get the answers.” I remembered the offer of grant money, put the coalition’s needs on paper, and wrote a request for $15,000 for the purpose of building a coalition to address hunger. We were granted $12,000, and this was the beginning of what has come to be known as Providence North East Washington (N.E.W.) Hunger Coalition: Abundance 4 All.
We met a second time, and again I listened to their stories – challenges, frustrations, and successes. When I asked what they would find helpful, they responded with, “more food, more money.” They requested someone to help them write grants, and one of the members of the group happened to know a grant writer. We followed up with this request and have used this grant writer for education and strategic planning. From the first meeting onward, the agenda for every meeting has been the result of the previous meeting’s discussion and requests.
The coalition has grown over the past year and our successes include:
- Creating relationships with every food bank in Stevens County;
- Creating partnerships that have leveraged grant opportunities making it possible to offer food preparation, gardening, and food preserving classes; a mentoring program to support new/fledgling food banks; underwriting a Vista volunteer who will create systems to bring growers, community gardens, and gleaners to food banks thus making fresh produce more available to the poor; creating an organizational infrastructure to include a website, a tool box for donor development, advertising for initiatives such as “Plant a Row for the Poor”; and moving the coalition to a 501c3 status.
- Creating a strategic plan that will put the coalition in a position to leverage grant opportunities on a state and/or national level;
- Advocating for unmet needs as in the case of a food bank that could not get food deliveries by a large distributor. The coalition has used its voice to promote this cause and the food bank is expected to get deliveries in early 2013;
- Strengthening relationships with food distributors to guarantee that produce is fresh and timely; and
- Creating a new confidence in those who are addressing hunger; the vision of the coalition is to rid Stevens County of hunger in five years.
The significance of this outreach effort centers on the model I used. As I knew nothing of hunger in rural America, I approached this endeavor as a chaplain walking into an initial visit. The skills I used came from chaplaincy training; listening, giving people enough time to connect with their own wisdom, reverencing the journeys of others, ritualizing, and modeling symbolically that which is sought. (We seek abundance for all, and through the hospitality of my chief executive, we supplied each meeting with soup, bread, and dessert.)
This chaplaincy model of outreach is very simple:
- invite the stakeholders;
- provide lunch ;
- facilitate a conversation that focuses on the needs and gaps of service as articulated by the stakeholders;
- give time for each person to tell his or her story;
- have a scribe that takes complete notes;
- let the stakeholders lead; and
- follow up on the needs that empower the stakeholders toward deeper collaboration and problem solving (responding to the request for a grant writer proved to be a milestone in the development of trust and shared vision in this group).
Outreach, be it with clergy, community leaders, or concerned citizens is less about orchestrating relationships and more about being a good chaplain – witnessing the journey, trusting the process, and inviting others to access their own wisdom. When this occurs, we become aware of incredible sacred space that has no limits and is as boundless as the love of Providence.
Chaplain Michele Le Doux Sakurai, a member of NACC’s Editorial Advisory Panel, is manager of pastoral care and mission for Providence Health Care in Stevens County, WA.
1Perry N. Miller, et al. “Discrete Varieties of Care in the Clinical Pastoral Tradition: Continuing the Dialogue,” Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling 57, #2, 2003: 113.