NORTH CANTON, Ohio — It’s a chilly, gray Saturday in this small town in northeastern Ohio. Hundreds of people are lining up outside the doors of the church waiting for the monthly clothing giveaway to begin. Early arrivals show up at 7:30 a.m. The doors don’t open until 10.
Denise Hammond, a tall woman with an easy smile, passes the time by quietly chatting with others in the line. She lives 30 minutes away in an apartment in Canton. She is unemployed.
“This means a lot to me. It’s how I clothe my three kids,” she says.
Just inside, Sherry Jones crouches on the brown tile floor near the women’s restroom, singing softly to her children. Guests are allowed to use the restroom before the doors open.
Daughters Mary Grayce, 1, and Abigayle, 3, are restless. Abigayle has cerebral palsy and requires constant attention.
“These people are wonderful here, and I find really good stuff for the kids,” Sherry Jones says.
At 10, the guests walk swiftly past the registration tables, collecting two large, empty garbage bags — the quota for each family. No smoking or fighting is allowed. People move quickly among the tables, filling their bags. Children eagerly eye the toy and book tables, carefully choosing a new treasure.
The people who come to the church include single mothers, elderly couples, veterans, immigrants, the disabled, the unemployed, the desperate.
The 350-member North Canton church has a passion for the poor.
And members believe God is leading this congregation into ministries that are making a difference.
“Our clothing program serves 150 to 300 families each time, and about 400 hundred families use the church’s monthly food giveaway,” says Rod Stockdale, outreach minister and project director of the giveaways.
Clothing is distributed on the second Saturday of the month, food on the fourth. All total, more than one million pounds has been given away since 2003.
HARSH ECONOMIC CONDITIONS
The beauty of its gently rolling hills and flowering dogwood trees masks the harsh economic reality that many Ohioans face today.
Like other Great Lakes states, Ohio has suffered major losses in heavy manufacturing jobs.
In Stark County, where the church is located, the unemployment rate is 10.7 percent, according to the U.S.Department of Labor. Nearly 41,000 are living in poverty, says Michelle Hinton, director of marketing at the Akron-Canton Regional Food Bank.
When hard times hit the area, the church could not turn its face away. And the community has followed its lead.
“God has commanded us to help the poor and those most in need,” says Ron Mollohan, who drives the church’s 15-foot truck or its three vans and trailers, picking up food and clothing donations from local stores and the food bank.
SHARING DEEP BLESSINGS
Inside the church gym, the scope of this ministry is evident. Thousands of articles of gently used clothing, neatly stacked and sorted by dozens of volunteers, are piled high upon 55 eight-foot tables. Children’s toys and books are heaped on other tables. On the stage are strollers, bicycles and baby equipment. Nearly 500 pairs of shoes line the perimeter.
Almost all these items have been donated by four local clothing consignment shops and three Walmarts. Instead of restocking returned goods or holiday clearance merchandise, the North Canton Walmart gives them to the church, members say.
The roots of this ministry began a dozen years ago with a simple donation of school supplies to students at a Canton inner-city elementary school by young girls in the church’s Tabitha Club, says Maxine Hostetler, their club sponsor.
Today, a host of compassion-based programs — known as “The Giving Tree” — has exploded within the church. They include the monthly giveaways as well as an array of outreach efforts to the community, inner-city schools and the needy.
Working with Stockdale and the volunteers is Giving Tree coordinator Janice Sweitzer, an accountant and financial advisor.
A sampling of these events:
• A snack program for 15 inner-city schools in nearby Canton.
• An annual new coat program for some 250 needy children.
• Easter community egg hunt, attended by 300-plus people.
• Community Christmas party.
• Thanksgiving meals delivered to 2,500 people.
A “Back to School Bash” in August draws 500 to 600 to the church. Children receive socks and underwear from Walmart, a bag of school supplies and free haircuts from local barbers.
Face-painting is always part of the children’s parties. It’s cheap, gives the volunteers important one-on-one time with the children, and kids love it, Sweitzer says.
“North Canton has been deeply blessed in so many ways by God, and we want to pass on some of those blessings to the more needy in our community,” Sweitzer says.
MEETING SPIRITUAL AND PHYSICAL NEEDS
Though the programs speak to physical needs, members employ Bible teaching and spiritual encouragement whenever possible.
All the crafts at the Easter giveaway party, for example, have a religious theme. “We don’t do cotton balls and bunnies,” Sweitzer says. “It’s sandpaper crosses … and we talk about Jesus. We’re not just being a social-service agency. We’re trying to teach about Jesus at the same time.”
Carolyn Joliff pushes food carts filled with groceries out to guests’ cars and unloads them. Like other volunteers, she likes talking with the guests and invites them to services.
“Sometimes people thank me. And I say, ‘Don’t thank us; thank the Lord.’ They say, ‘We thank you both.’”
At every event, Linda Blackwood runs a World Bible School booth. Last year 102 people signed up. Several have been converted after additional study and contact with the volunteers.
Tina Despres, 42, and her mother, Brenda Antoszewski, 60, are two of those baptized in 2009 by Ted Underwood, North Canton’s pulpit minster for the past 33 years. Both women are on disability, and Tina’s husband is deaf and on disability, too.
“I could never understand the Bible when I read it, but the course helped a lot,” Despres says. She and her mother now read the Bible together every day and work as volunteers at the giveaways.
Unforeseen blessings of the “Giving Tree” ministries include the many opportunities it has provided for church members to practice their faith.
Carolyn Lindequist explains it this way: “When you have a large project or several large projects like we have, it creates niches for people who haven’t found something to do. There are so many things that are easy to do in these programs that accomplish so much.”
While all ages participate as volunteers in the programs, many of the men and women volunteers are retired people. Setting up and taking down 50 to 100 tables every month requires lots of “lugging and loading,” Maxine Hostetler observes.
Three years ago, their desire to expand their outreach ministries meant the church needed to build. They took on a $3.1 million addition, virtually doubling the size of the building with an 18,000-square-foot addition. A gym, a larger fellowship room and kitchen and adult classrooms were added.
“It took a lot of faith for a church our size to do what we did,” Blackwood says. There was no building fund, but members have already given nearly $2 million toward their goal, says longtime member Kevin Ramsey.
Using the gym, the church also implemented a growing community sports ministry for small children that is bringing in more visitors, says Jim Lindequist, an elder and co-director of a recently added program, Upward Sports.
THE COMMUNITY RESPONDS
Community response has been remarkable. In addition to the support of retail stores, dozens of community people now make up about half of the total volunteers.
A man who often walks through the parking lot and sees the long lines regularly hands Stockdale a check for $500.
Hundreds of community volunteers show up for the Thanksgiving Day meal deliveries.
“These are folks … who just love to help the needy,” Stockdale says.
Far from the Bible Belt, the North Canton church is also well known and appreciated by civic and school groups.
Calling them “well organized and successful,” Jill Oldham, director of the regional food bank, named the North Canton church as the largest food distribution agency among the 94 in Stark County during 2010. They distributed 337,880 pounds of food.
“God has opened door after door for us, and the elders have not been hesitant to walk through them,” Stockdale says.
The elders believe these programs as well as many others — such as their large missions involvement and their active youth programs directed by Travis Williams — all meet their mission statement: “Glorify Jesus and show him to others.”
The elders evaluate every idea brought to them using two criteria: “Does it meet our mission statement? And do those behind the idea have the passion to really get in there and make it happen?” Jim Linquist says.
“If those two things click, then we let them go, and we step back and let God make it happen.”