President Barack Obama recently put Elkhart, Ind. in the national spotlight during a visit to highlight his stimulus package. The north Indiana city suffers from almost 17 percent unemployment, according to press reports. A year ago, unemployment was around 5 percent.

About 16,000 people are out of work there, many for the first times in their lives. Vehicle manufacturing is a big part of the city's economy. It's known as the "RV capital of the world."

The 850-member Trinity United Methodist Church in Elkhart ministers to the community to ease the economic pains it is suffering. Trinity is one of nine United Methodist churches serving the community. It, too, has been hit with a $100,000 decrease in promised support for this year, according to Senior Pastor Mark Fenstermacher.

In response to the economic downturn and high unemployment in Elkhart, the Rev. Lore Blinn Gibson, Trinity's senior associate minister, said, "We have created special ministries on the front lines helping Trinity reach out to those who are unemployed, under-employed or on furlough, which means one may have a job to go back to, but aren't currently paid and can't draw unemployment."

She said, "Each month, we receive a Matthew 25 Offering at our communion rail. The Matthew 25 Team distributes that money to area agencies and food pantries to use in direct relief to the poor. We also directly help church members, particularly those who have cut hours and don't qualify for other aid."

Bag of grace

As part of this program, Trinity fills gallon-sized plastic bags, called "bags of grace," with snack-sized food for distribution to community soup kitchens and homeless agencies. Each bag contains four meals. Matthew 25 also sends Walmart or supermarket gift cards anonymously to families who are recently laid off or terminated.

Assisting citizens with future employment possibilities, Trinity has sponsored two Networking Nights and is planning a third night. Gibson said Trinity pulls together representatives from Ivy Tech Community College, Bethel College and Indiana University at Elkhart to help those laid off from RV plants to use the money earmarked for their training or to connect those who have completed training and GED programs with placement.

From their own congregation, the church uses human resource people, headhunters, small business owners, financial advisors and retired accountants to help people employment possibilities and transitional budgets. Trinity also partners with a local Presbyterian church's support group.

Trinity's activity with a cooperative food pantry run by several congregations also has increased. Gibson said, "To meet the demand, small groups within the church are sponsoring a March Madness - get mad about hunger campaign on March 21-22. They are challenging us to collect 10,000 boxes of food."

Encourage the unemployed

As far as time commitments, Gibson said, "We encourage the unemployed to continue to serve God with their time. So we have unemployed people who paint at Faith Mission, donate administrative help to the church and serve in a variety of ways in the community."

Using today's technology, "Trinity has provided place on the church's Web site ( for people to anonymously tell the stories of how they helped or were helped so God gets the glory. We'll be using those in worship videos in the future," said Gibson.

"We pray and preach each week. In prayers mentioning both the unemployed and those company owners who have watched their businesses fail, had to lay off people they care about, etc. We pray for our city all the time, and watch for opportunities to serve. This is why we exist," said Gibson.

Next month, Together will report on United Methodists in Kokomo reaching out to help those affected by this recession.