Monthly Archives: August 2014

Reviving the American Dream

The following is strictly my personal opinion. Working in Washington, DC more than a decade ago, I had the opportunity to engage David Walker, former Comptroller General of the United States, as a speaker for a conference I was hosting.  Mr. Walker had the bully pulpit In DC because he held a position in which he had ready access to economic and fiscal information at the highest levels, a first rate team of professionals and could not be fired by anyone for speaking out for the duration of his fifteen-year term.  At one point I asked Mr. Walker if people on the Hill were listening to him and his response was something like “very rarely”.

During that time and for some years before, he and others were devoted to educating Congress on the perils of maintaining our questionable financial management practices as a nation.  This miscarriage of fiduciary responsibility is well known to most observers of the American political process and generally involves the avoidance of fiscal discipline.  Specifically, Congress and the President have ignored looming problems with Social Security, Medicare and the need for both entitlement reform and fiscal restraint to deal with our national debt which exceeds $17 trillion.  In addition, we have failed to make the kinds of strategic investments that will promote economic vitality and American competitiveness. All of these problems were set forth more recently by the Boyles-Simpson Commission which was authorized by President Obama.  Like Mr. Walker’s earlier recommendations, the work by Boyles Simpson was disregarded despite the fact that the remedies for our fiscal problems have been known for many years.

This recalcitrance is troubling locally for a number of reasons. In coming decades, servicing the national debt and covering the costs of Social Security and Medicare will consume ever larger portions of the federal budget.  Local governments deliver a broad array of services that are essential for our citizens.  Everyone in local government has seen a recent decline in both intergovernmental transfers and grants.  These forms of revenue support many types of locally delivered services and may be irreplaceable considering the limitations of local revenue generation capacity.  Secondly, we are informed that succeeding generations of Americans will not be able to sustain the same levels of economic prosperity their parents have enjoyed.  Finally, our weakened financial condition makes us more vulnerable to all sorts of calamities and inhibits our nation’s ability to make the kinds of strategic investments that will promote future economic vibrancy and quality of life.  In short, abdication of fiduciary responsibility at the federal level will have a trickle-down effect on local government and citizens.

Although the remedies to these problems are far from painless, the solutions are well known.  The real obstacles seem to be the lack political will to address these challenges and an operating environment in Washington which is scandalously polarized.  Ultimately, the repercussions of this inaction on the part of Congress and the President will be borne by American taxpayers.  Various groups, including the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, have pointed out that correcting our fiscal imbalance can be accomplished in a gradual manner that supports economic growth and protects the most vulnerable in society. Delaying action, however, simply exacerbates the problem and extends the pain further into the future.  Instead of politics as usual and lame attempts to deflect blame, America desperately needs strong bipartisan leadership at the national level that is willing to take decisive action.  Climbing out of the hole we have dug for ourselves may require a generation of belt tightening.  The alternatives of continued brinksmanship, a gradual decline in American influence and the inability to address strategic priorities is even less appealing.  It is time for Congress and the President to revive the American Dream.

Earl Mathers, Gaston County Manager

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Backpack Weekend Food Program

Food insecurity or childhood hunger is a rising epidemic in the United States.  One in five children does not know where their next meal is coming from. With the US economy continually declining, the numbers are expected to grow.

The BackPack Weekend Food Program (BWFP) is the outgrowth of a study of the nutritional needs of school-aged children in Gaston County over the weekend especially during the school year.  Gaston County Schools has reported that since 2007 the number of students served free or reduced fee lunch has risen from 47% of the public school population to 59% in 2013.

In early 2011 while watching a TV program on the Food Network, Carolyn Niemeyer came upon a program featuring a back pack program in Rock Hill, SC.  According to the program, 1 in 17 children in that school district were hungry on the weekend. “This surely couldn’t be,” Carolyn thought.  After doing some research on her own, she discovered the astonishing truth and suspected the same may be true in Gaston County as well.  Carolyn contacted the Gaston County School System to discover they did not have an official weekend back pack program in the county, although some schools did have local churches providing food for students on the weekend.

Carolyn, mother of two and grandmother of five, went on a six month search to gain information about how she could help.  Believing a back pack program would work in Gaston County, she reached out to the community, and it responded. “I just knew that something had to be done, I couldn’t sleep thinking about little children being hungry,” said Carolyn.

CaroMont Health provided the professional nutrition advice through their chief dietitian with specially designed menus for both elementary and middle/high school aged children. The food items for the program are purchased at a wholesale bulk rate through an agreement with CaroMont Health and their Premier purchase program. CaroMont Health became the first partner in the project and has provided food bags for over 100 students each week at one of the elementary schools for the past three years.

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Gastonia provides the warehouse space, the non-profit status, and has been a partner since the beginning providing food bags for over 50 students at an elementary school.  Pastor Brack East offered his support when Carolyn brought the idea of a backpack program to him.  “God gave Carolyn her passion for this program and we wanted to help out in any way we could, said Pastor East.”

The program is designed to provide a bag of nonperishable, individually-portioned, nutritionally-balanced food for students to take home in their backpacks on the weekend.  Schools choose to be involved with the program.  Each school is partnered with a local church or organization that has agreed to fund a set number of students in the program for at least one year.

The cost to feed a child for the weekend is under $5.00, which includes at least six meals.   The students receiving the weekend food bags are identified by teachers, counselors, principals, social workers, and school nurses as those most likely to be hungry on the weekend.

 “This program has the ability to provide some sort of stability to students,” Valerie Yatko, the Gaston County Schools Business and Education Partnership Director says.  “Just for children to be certain that they will not be hungry over weekend could translate to better performance and behavior in the classroom.  We are seeing some success with that.”

Many volunteers give their time each month to unload the tractor trailer load of food, organize the food items, count them for the partner food orders, and assist with distribution to the partners. Carolyn Niemeyer serves as the program’s coordinator.

There are many, many more volunteers in 36 partner churches or organizations that pack the food bags each week for over 740 students in 33 schools in the county.  They say they know their time is well spent and are committed to feeding hungry children on the weekends.

In the 2013-14 school year the BackPack Weekend Food Program provided 168,963 meals at a cost of $174,334.80.  The program has been recognized in the Community Foundation’s newsletter and was the winner of $10,000 in underwriting in the Community Give Back contest sponsored by WTVI PBS in Charlotte.  The Gaston County Commissioners commended the program, the partners, and the volunteers at their June meeting.

The BackPack Weekend Food Program is getting ready to begin a fourth year of operation.  The program expects to add at least three to five additional schools with approximately 100 more students.  Many schools will ask to increase their number of students needing the weekend food.  When this happens and the partner does not have the extra funds, the program will pay for these additional food bags. This past school year the program paid for 100 students, many of whom were homeless.  The cost for these extra students can run as much as $30,000 to $40,000 for the year.

There are many caring individuals, clubs and organizations who regularly send donations to the program.  The BackPack Weekend Food Program has had the good fortune to receive support from grants from local and regional foundations. The participation in the Community Foundation Run for the Money 12 was very successful this year.  Without this continued monetary support, the program would not be able to extend the numbers of food bags when they are needed.

 “I don’t see our number of students going down, but I do know our food costs will be rising as much as 5 to 7%,” said Carolyn.  “We have to make weekly adjustments to our food orders when we have costs increases.  To have the monetary support from these donations and grants is vital to our operation.”

Volunteers, donations, interest in the program are always welcome.

For more information about the BackPack Weekend Food Program, please email  bwfpgastoncounty@gmail.com.

The Role of the Clergy in Community Leadership

We live in a time unprecedented in history. There is more information available to us than ever before, and for most of us it comes with the click of a button on our phone or computer. As has often been noted, we are busier than ever before and yet we have more time saving devices than ever before. What do these facts have to do with the role of clergy in community leadership? As far as I’m concerned: everything!

Never before has our society needed relationships with one another as badly as we do now. In spite of how much we as clergy may complain about the diminishing respect given to clergy, the truth is that people know for whom we stand and we can be advocates for relationships that matter. While we may bemoan our society and how impersonal everything has become, there has been no greater time to be in ministry than now.

The only advice my father ever gave me about being a minister (he spent 51 years in active ministry before his death) was that “a little bit of visiting makes up for a whole lot of bad preaching.” Besides being a bit of a slam on my preaching (!), that advice is a reminder that ministry isn’t rocket science. We are called to know the people and care for them and learn from them. It has always made sense to me to be involved a local civic club in the community where I live because it allows me to meet folks and be involved in the community. If all I offer as a minister are words without relationship, I feel that I am missing out on the greatest example Jesus Christ gave us of loving one another.

I believe that more and more churches are realizing that we must have a vision greater than the membership of the church. Our United Methodist Bishop in Western NC, Larry Goodpaster, is fond of saying to the over 1,100 clergy under his care, “You are appointed to a community where there just happens to be a church!” His obvious implication is that he expects those of us in ministry to be involved in the community. As clergy, we are missing great opportunities to serve our Lord if we do not get involved with the community.

I tell people all the time that I have the best job in the world because when I was appointed to First UMC in Gastonia, I was told that my three priorities were: (1) Preach, (2) Be involved in the community, and (3) Cast a vision for the church. What a gift I have been given to serve a church that knows we simply must be involved in the community where we are and that any vision of ministry for any church simply must involve caring for those in the immediate neighborhood.

An amazing theologian and story-teller, Tex Sample, shared about a membership drive for a downtown church where the community had changed over the years from affluence to poverty. Membership was rapidly declining and a new pastor had a vision to go out to the suburbs, “where the money was”, and advertise their church. Dr. Sample, hired as a consultant to the church, told that young preacher that he could finish that drive in Hell, because that’s where any church that doesn’t care for its neighbors will end up!  Jesus’ words were less harsh on the subject: “love God with all you have, and love your neighbor as yourself”. Much is changing in our world, but the command to love those around us never changes… we must, as clergy and laypersons, be involved in our communities!

We are blessed to live in a community where so many people care about the greater good, beginning with relationships with those around us. May we all see beyond the walls that surround us!

David Christy, Senior Pastor

First United Methodist Church