Features

Their brothers' teacher

National | A Dallas coalition of churches and businesses cares for people by teaching them responsibility

Issue: "Attack and dissent," May 19, 2001

in Dallas-Retired marketing executive Ed Thurman takes pride in his new position as a grocery store manager. Every morning he arrives at 7 a.m. to straighten display signs, fill the shelves, and polish countertops. His supervisors are happy too: In two years, Mr. Thurman increased grocery sales by 80 percent. That's a noteworthy accomplishment, considering that his customers don't use real money and his checkers are all church volunteers. Mr. Thurman's "Food Pantry" is one of 17 outreach programs founded by Christian Community Action (CCA), a 363-member coalition of churches and businesses in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. In addition to the food pantry, CCA assists some 2,500 families a year through housing renovation, free medical clinics, tutoring classes, and child-care assistance. In exchange for attending biblically based budgeting classes, CCA provides 500 parents a week with food vouchers redeemable for roughly $100 worth of groceries. First-time shoppers check in at the "courtesy booth" where volunteers wearing photo IDs collect vouchers. Pushing grocery carts with bright red CCA logos on them, single moms with babies in their carts and calculators in their hands examine aisles of donated diapers, yellow corn meal, and canned vegetables. Paper signs taped on the shelves announce "bonus buys"-products that do not require voucher money. Just before Easter, for example, one bonus buy consisted of eggs provided by an anonymous donor who wanted shoppers "to enjoy the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ." The pantry store reflects CCA's mission: to demonstrate Christ's love and restore poor people's dignity while also teaching responsibility. "Our goal is to change lives," said Mr. Thurman. "If we just handed out grocery bags people would have no reason to stop coming. By allowing them to select their own food and requiring them to budget their own voucher money, we help them reach the point where they don't need us anymore." CCA began 30 years ago as a Bible study in the home of Thomas Duffy, the current president. After reading Jesus' command to love your neighbor, his study group decided to obey: "It was kind of an awakening," said Mr. Duffy. "All of us had read those scriptures before, but this time they came alive to us and we had a sense of urgency." The next week, the group canvassed neighborhoods with fliers asking for in-kind donations for the poor. To accommodate the response, they transformed their garages into warehouses for tattered couches and rusty bed frames. But old furniture failed to help poor families struggling with constant cash-flow problems. So Mr. Duffy's group opened a resale shop and converted garage wares into cash subsidies. The strategy continues today: Donated goods sold in resale stores generate 54 percent of CCA's $4 million annual budget. Store profits and cash donations are converted into gas, food, and medical vouchers that recipients earn by attending budgeting classes or voluntary Bible studies. CCA relies on 100 full-time employees and 1,100 volunteers who are instructed to show both compassion and discipline. Clients must present documentation of financial need. Missed appointments automatically result in forfeited aid, and vouchers are only distributed at the end of life-skill classes. CCA employees refer to clients as "angel families" in reference to the Bible verse about hosting angels unaware. ("It helps keep the right perspective when some people scream at you because they don't want to be held accountable," confides one employee.) Sandwiched between affluent Dallas and Fort Worth suburbs, the 37,000-square-foot CCA office sits in the heart of "old Lewisville"-a historic lumber town intermixed with charming Western storefronts and dilapidated shacks. A crowded lobby decorated with green leather couches, a goldfish tank, and Norman Rockwell pictures forms its command center. This afternoon, an elderly woman in a blue apron squeezes onto a couch already occupied by a Hispanic family of four. Other visitors perch on the arm rests. In the corner, a young black woman wearing an orange T-shirt and sandals watches the goldfish. Three receptionists flanked by two huge silk flower arrangements busily screen walk-ins. Across the hall volunteer physicians treat patients in a three-room medical clinic. Since Lewisville has no county hospital, the clinic saves taxpayers money by keeping uninsured individuals out of the emergency room. Dr. Raymond Bandy, a Baptist preacher who doubles as the clinic medical director, volunteers his time every Tuesday afternoon treating patients and signing lab reports. In addition to cotton swabs and stethoscopes, Dr. Bandy's medicine cabinet contains red Bibles and Gospel of John booklets. "This medical clinic has been the greatest opportunity in my life to evangelize and disciple," he said. "Some of my patients come here mad at God, life, and at me. But still they want to know why I'm doing this. The answer is always the same-because I love Christ and I'm committed to God."

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