Season of service

Boulder's faith communities play crucial role in helping the needy

Christie Sounart | Boulder Weekly

Several times a week, 47-year-old Ron Cobbley does his part to serve Boulder’s homeless. He spends much of his time assisting First Presbyterian Church with a lunch for the homeless and greets visitors by name or with a friendly pat on the back. Few would know that Cobbley is homeless himself.

Cobbley has been involved with the church for more than 20 years. His father was Mormon, and he says that fact is what has given him his character and desire to be involved with a church. Despite having no physical place to call home, he feels a sense of community with his church.

“The church has practically become my family,” he says. “It’s pretty much my backbone.”

Boulder’s religious organizations affect many homeless people’s lives, and now that it is the holiday season, Cobbley says he expects to see the amount of giving increase.

“It’s really awesome to see people getting help that need help,” he says.

The holidays are a time for Boulder’s faith community to reach out to those in need. And in a time of recession, there are more and more families in need of food, clothing, supplies and shelter, says Kay Gazaway, marketing and event coordinator for EFAA, the Emergency Family Assistance Association. As of Nov. 1, the organization was seeing a record number of families that needed help.

“It’s a telling sign that the economy is a trying time for many people,” she says.

For many congregations, a certain amount of money is budgeted to give away each month, she says. However, individual giving rises during the holidays, she says, in part because many people want to help families try to keep things as normal as possible.

“[Congregations] as a whole don’t give more, but individuals give more,” Gazaway says. “It’s the season of giving. I presume that touches people’s hearts.”

This year EFAA held a holiday food basket drive, which provided people with 1,000 baskets containing food and staple items, and many local congregations participated. Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in Boulder, for instance, gave EFAA 200 cans of evaporated milk for people to make pumpkin pies, she says.

Community Food Share in Longmont receives a lot of support from the local faith community, says Terry Tedeschi, the organization’s development director. Many congregations hold food drives for Community Food Share, and also act as distributors of the donated food.

“The faith community participates in a lot of different ways,” she says. “A lot of times churches will do a food drive without us even knowing, and will give us all the food. Whatever a church or synagogue sends in really helps us.”

While much support comes in during the holidays, Tedeschi says that the faith community — which includes Boulder’s mosques, synagogues, churches and temples — assists them all year long.

“It’s a part of their mission [to serve others]. Every congregation does what it can based on its size,” she says. “It’s the support of the faith communities all year long that sustains us.”

The holidays are an opportunity for many religious organizations to hold special functions to help those who are in need. First Presbyterian Church has more than a dozen outreaches to collect food, toys, gifts, supplies, clothes and outdoor gear. One of the ministries called “Angel Tree” will give gifts to families of prisoners, and another service will be a Thanksgiving dinner that will be served to more than 350 guests, including some who are homeless.

“I think these holidays are such special times that people have fond memories from their past and an anticipation of great family times together coming up,” says Russ Teets, the director of local outreach and evangelism at the church. “[They] want to do something that will help those in need to have a better holiday.”

The college ministry of the church, called The Annex, has its own way to reach out during the holidays. They are collecting blankets for the homeless shelter as well as putting together bags of supplies to pass out to the homeless.

“The whole thing is to show the love of Christ,” Teets says. “We’re just trying to do what he tells us to do.”

The faith community largely supports the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, especially during the holidays, says Greg Harms, the shelter’s executive director. Boulder’s congregations have been involved with the shelter since its start, he says. Many times people from congregations will work in the kitchen and will serve breakfast or dinner.

“The shelter relies on the faith community for financial contributions, and it’s a big source for volunteers,” he says. “It’s very typical for a church or synagogue to take a night and serve a dinner that night.”

The holidays are always a time when people want to volunteer, Harms says. However, the shelter finds it challenging to find volunteers in January or February when the need is still great. Yet congregations from multiple faiths keep up their efforts throughout the year.

“Generally the larger congregations are involved, but that’s not always the case,” he says. “It depends on how much serving is a penance. For some congregations, service is more important.”

The synagogue Har HaShem gives more during the holidays, says Rabbi Joshua Rose. The congregation holds a Thanksgiving food drive, for instance. Rose explains that within the Jewish tradition, there is significant concern for justice and compassion.

“The Torah and the prophets are quite explicit about giving to those in need. It’s a central part in Jewish teaching,” he says. “This is a time when we step up our giving.”

Like many other congregations in Boulder, Congregation Har HaShem serves people year-round. The synagogue, which includes more than 450 families, is a warming center for the homeless and collects food and toiletries all year. They also hold a regular food drive, which provides 1,000 meals to hungry families.

“Yes we do more on the holidays,” he says. “[But] the work is ongoing throughout the year.”

Eric Holloway has experienced the help of Boulder’s congregations firsthand. When he was homeless for five years, he noticed an increase of giving around Thanksgiving and Christmas from different religious organizations. He thinks that people involved with congregations give more during the season to know that they did something right during the holidays.

“I feel that it has to do more with the personal idea of helping others and gaining a gratification of oneself during this particular season,” he says.

People give more during the holiday season because they get into a mindset that makes them feel inclined to increase charitable activities and make donations, says Leaf Van Boven, a professor in the University of Colorado’s psychology and neuroscience department. He explains that people can easily get caught up in something that happens to be salient in the moment, such as giving to a charity during the holidays. He says this is the reason that many charities ramp up their efforts to reach donors during the season.

“The reason people give more during the holidays is it invites self-reflection, and it invokes generosity,” he says.

“So there’s an expectation that around the holiday season people should behave more generously, and also it’s a time when people reflect on their values. For many people, gratitude and generosity are values that they care about.”

The St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center holds a week-long Thanksgiving food drive that brings in enough food to last its recipients the entire academic year due to the extremely large response, says Patty Quinn, director of religious education.

“People who aren’t normally involved with the food bank will participate that week,” she says.

The food from the drive goes into their food bank, which distributes one grocery bag of food per month to those who need it and gives them the option of returning to the food bank for two food items a day. The intention is that no one will go hungry from day to day, she says.

Quinn says there are many more programs to choose from during the holidays as well. Congregation members give strollers to mothers, toys to children and items such as clothing and bikes to those who need them.

“In our culture, it’s seen as a time of giving,” Quinn says. “Everyone feels better when they share.

“But for Christians, Christmas giving comes from a deeper place — it’s more about sharing our joy that comes from our faith in Christ. Christians want to spread that cheer and give to others in need so that they will have a joyful Christmas as well. We believe that God’s gift of his son is such a wonderful gift, and one way for us to express our gratitude is to share with others.”

The need for help has increased in the past couple of years, but an October Red Cross study found that most people are planning to donate as much as or more than they did last holiday season. People especially will give when the need is food, because no one wants to see anyone go hungry, Quinn says.

“I know some folks who are struggling, and they still give what they can to our food bank, although the amount is more carefully thought out,” she says.

The organization Boulder Outreach for Homeless Overflow (BOHO), which provides a place for homeless people to stay when the shelters run out of room or when nights are wet or very cold, also has a lot of help from the faith community. BOHO has seen a dramatic increase this year in the number of people who need a place to stay at night, says Anne Doyle, chair of the organization’s board of directors. However, many local congregations have offered their services to help.

“The faith community has really stepped up in terms of providing service,” she says.

Twelve congregations work in partnership with BOHO, and many give money and supplies to the organization. BOHO gives all of its money to its staff, which consists of people who either are or have been homeless, and is in constant need of funds and volunteers.

Last year, congregations organized a Christmas service for those who slept at a shelter on Christmas Eve, she says. She suspects that there will be more involvement from congregations, and that people will do special things this year. The warming center on Christmas Eve will be at the Seventh Day Baptist Church, where a Christmas dinner will be served, and guests will be invited to also attend their service, Doyle says.

“The faith community is very responsive, and wants to find ways to help,” she says.