St. Paul’s Church in Minonk supposedly had six hundred members when they called me to be their pastor. About fifty of that number turned out to have no names, but they were still a substantial congregation. Many were related to each other after four generations of German family intermarriage. The town of Minonk was 2400 in population and rapidly shrinking, due both to the elderly imbalance of its citizens and to the loss of industrial jobs in its area. Clearly St. Paul’s dominated the five congregations in the town in size, but that had not resulted in taking more responsibility for community life.
They did take part in the one social service project of the town, sponsored by the Ministerial Association (the four ministers—the fifth coming a distance only on Sunday), and that was home-delivered meals prepared by the nursing home and delivered by church volunteers. That was a beginning, anyway. Otherwise the town had only the local community services that were provided by town government, namely the police, fire and rescue services. Lions Club, Scouts, and 4-H did occasional helpful projects. As poor people moved into Minonk to take advantage of low-cost housing, there was not much more to serve their needs.
St. Paul’s had mostly looked after its own needs, caring for one another in family duty. When a 4-H club, led by congregation members, asked to use the church facilities for regular meetings, it was the first such request that any of the current leaders could remember. They hesitated, but the argument that they should serve more people in the community won the vote. There was not much sacrifice in providing a free location for a 4-H club.
The next steps were harder. It was clear that more people were having a difficult time making ends meet. Food banks were beginning to make an appearance in the larger communities in the region, and access to surplus and donated food was simple, given pick-up vehicles, a few volunteers, and a place to distribute. A few church members saw the need, provided some volunteers, two of whom loaned the use of their trucks. The city provided space in an old city hall, if another organization took responsibility for staffing and liability insurance, which St. Paul’s insurance provider was willing to do. The Ministerial Association recruited a few more volunteers. With St. Paul’s members in the lead, the church gave its approval of the project. Food and money donations came in and the pantry was underway. (Several years later, outgrowing the old city hall, the church provided space in underused accessible rooms.)
After a few months, a local restauranteur volunteered to provide a Christmas party to needy children of the area, and she asked the food pantry to gather a list of children to be invited, along with gift requests. The food pantry clients happily cooperated. St. Paul’s and another congregation sought volunteer sponsors, and there were enough to cover the fifty children who were the anonymous recipients. St. Paul’s Youth agreed to wrap and identify the gifts with the number tags that maintained the anonymity. So, Santa’s Helpers was born, and continued year after year.
The people who had for several years gathered clothing to take to Goodwill and other groups in larger communities found that they could distribute coats and shoes and other items in town at the food pantry before they took the surplus to other places.
Requests for counseling increased as the newer residents found that they had a home in Minonk and people who cared about them. The four ministers reported that their counseling loads were increasing with people outside their congregations. We investigated the resources available in the area and places to refer people in need for those situations that exceeded our abilities.
Eventually St. Paul’s would hire an associate pastor who provided a children and family program for several years, although the funding for that effort became too great a burden to bear.
St. Paul’s Church always had plenty to do to take care of their own members, but a shrinking town population and the diminishing power of extended family ties did not keep them from growing in their care for others.