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Ebenezer Christian Center food pantry
Ebenzer Christian Center in Sacramento, California, discovered that the hunger that existed in its community wasn't limited to the kids in their children's ministry. The church now distributes enough groceries for 11,000 to 14,000 meals a month.

When Karen Abrego first came to Ebenezer Christian Center (AG) in Sacramento, California, six years ago as an associate pastor, she was a very experienced children's worker and filled with confidence in her ability to reach children for Christ. 

But her confidence was quickly tested and then frustrated. She couldn't seem to get the children's attention, much less get them to settle down. Behavioral issues were rampant. Did the kids just not want to be there? Was it a lack of respect? What was she missing?

"I decided to kill them with kindness," Abrego says. "So, it was an Easter Sunday, and we made silver-dollar blueberry pancakes for the children." Moments later, the light went on for Abrego.

"When the children started to eat, I remembered hearing that sound before . . . it was this moaning sound as they ate — it was the same sound the malnourished children I had cared for in El Salvador made when they were fed," she says.

Albrego realized that many of the children were coming to church hungry.

Ebenezer Christian Center, a member of the Assemblies of God Northern Pacific Latin American District (NPLAD), is located in a low-income, high-crime part of south Sacramento. As Abrego investigated further, she discovered that the nearby elementary school was a Title I school and that 98 percent of the kids attending were on a reduced-rate or free-meal program. 

"The kids were coming to school and receiving breakfast and lunch five days a week, but on the weekends they were food poor," she says. Ironically Sacramento is known as a rich agricultural area, but the people living in the church's neighborhood didn't have the funds or transportation to readily access it — so they did without.

Pastor Dan and Dionna Garza
Pastor Dan and Dionna Garza

Understanding the need, Abrego met with Senior Pastor Dan Garza, and the church began serving healthy snacks to the children on Sunday mornings. They then partnered with a food bank to provide food for families through the church twice a month.

"In February, due to budget cuts, the elementary school lost the support of its food bank," Abrego says. "We went to our food bank and asked if they would pick up the school and its families — they agreed as long as we provided the volunteers." 

Ebenezer Christian Center has an attendance of 350-400. As many of those attending come from the community and understand (sometimes personally) the desperate need of so many of the neighborhood families, the church confidently agreed to the food bank's request for volunteers.

The church now gives away enough food for 11,000 to 14,000 meals each month.

Efraim Espinoza, director of AG Office Of Hispanic Relations, states, "Ebenezer Christian Center, under the leadership of Pastor Dan Garza, serves as a great testimony that the Assemblies of God wants to reach out in compassion to those around it." 

Although some may assume that because the church is a Hispanic church, its community is strictly Hispanic, Abrego quickly clarifies that the area is a "mixing pot" of multiple ethnicities, including Russian, Ukrainian, Filipino, Hispanic, Hmong and Middle Eastern — to name a few. 

Providing healthy snacks for the children on Sunday mornings has been transformational for the church as the children are now attentive. In addition, the food bank has made a huge impact on the church's community. The staff now calls their twice-monthly food distribution from the church their "Friday morning congregation."

Pastor Karen Abrego
Associate Pastor Karen Abrego with two gentlemen from the Ukraine who the church now ministers to through its food pantry.

"The difference between what we do and other food pantries do is that we pray over and with people who come," Abrego says. "The people ask us to pray for their needs. We recently had one woman come rushing in, not worried that she was going to miss getting her groceries, but that she had missed prayer!"

The efforts the church has made to supply groceries to the community has torn down walls, introduced people to the church, and built relationships between the community and church volunteers and staff.

"Now, I walk down the street and people are calling out to me, 'Hey PK [Pastor Karen]!'"

The school has also communicated its thankfulness, saying that children are better behaved and are able to learn more easily without the distraction of hunger. One teacher shared how thankful she was that she could direct parents who were needing food for their families to the church's food distribution at the school. 

NPLAD Superintendent Jesse Galindo affirms the efforts of the church by saying, "We need more pastors like Pastor Dan [Garza] that will empower and support their staff to fulfill the Great Commission through their specific ministry in the local church."

In addition to food ministry, Ebenezer Christian Center also has a ministry to the homeless, taking clothing to the homeless communities every other month; they have brought in registered nurses to give free flu shots; they've helped families register for healthcare; and opened their doors for all kinds of events to meet needs. 

"We're not a mega-church," Abrego says, "but we're consistently chipping away at the rock of poverty and making a difference in families and lives. We've become the hub of our community . . . , and isn't that what the church is supposed to be?"

 


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Churches look to long-term response for traumatized Newtown

Mon, 07 Jan 2013 - 4:34 PM CST

Friday, December 14, is a date the small town of Newtown, Connecticut, will never forget. It is the date that the nearly 700 hundred children attending Sandy Hook Elementary School, their parents, siblings and extended family members and many in the community had their lives changed forever as 20 children and six adults lost their lives by the hand of a gunman who sought out the defenseless.

Philp and Alli Morgan
Pastor Philip Morgan and his wife, Alli.

According to Philip Morgan, pastor of First Assembly of God in nearby Brookfield, Connecticut, the impact of the shooting reached far beyond immediate families. "Indeed, there's no one in our city who doesn't have a connection in some way to the tragedy," Morgan says. "None of the shooting victims were from our immediate congregation, but almost immediately, connections began to appear."

As Morgan lists off some of the church members' connections, the impact area of the horrific act quickly broadens.

"Sandy cared for a young special needs girl, who she took to school late on Friday morning, just 10 minutes before the shooting - the little girl was killed," Morgan begins. "Bob was the dispatcher who took the first frantic 911 calls from the school; Meagan, a freshman college student, taught ballet to two of the girls who were killed; Pete manages a nearby Starbucks, one of his barista staff was a substitute teacher on Friday and was killed; we have several teachers in our congregation who have worked over the years with the Sandy Hook principal, who was killed; Paul, another teacher, works with a parent whose son was killed . . . ."

Morgan says that First Assembly, along with many other churches in the community, offered a prayer service that fateful Friday evening, with the church filling with the shocked, numbed and grieving, along with special services on Sunday. And Christmas, which typically arrives with an unlimited sense of happiness, joy and celebration - especially for children and families - came about with an overhanging sense of heaviness, and for some, fear and uncertainty.

"Sandy Hook is such a quiet little community," Morgan says. "Here the cliché, 'Never thought it would happen here,' really rings true. Of all the places, this really is the last place on earth to expect something like this. People have been processing disbelief for a long time. They're asking, 'Where was God?' and 'Why did He allow this to happen?'"

The Sunday following the tragedy, Morgan's sermon was entitled, "What in the world is God doing?" He explained to the hurting and still shocked audience that the Cross is the answer and sin is the problem. "Everyone was kind of numb," Morgan recalls. "People tried to make it as normal of a Christmas as possible, while victims' families were tucked away just trying to get through it as best they could."

Morgan says that the church had already planned 21 days of prayer and fasting to start the New Year, but now one of the focuses of prayer is the church's response to this crisis and those suffering due to the tragedy.

However, the evangelical community in the area is far from simply self-focused. With dozens of churches already part of an active and coordinated evangelical church fellowship, when tragedy struck, Morgan says they were able to come together quickly and begin a coordinated response.

"One of our members contacted churches who were involved in response in the Columbine and Virginia Tech tragedies to attain what to expect," Morgan says. "It was the same story - short term, the media was all over it and people were giving, but once the media spotlight went elsewhere . . . the real need is longer term."

With that in mind, the churches worked to develop a three- to five-year response effort, with the mission statement of: To create a long-term, proactive, integrated and planned response to the needs in the community following the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, so that there is healing and Kingdom advancement.

One of the fist things the group did was set up the Sandy Hook Response Fund at a local bank.

"We want to be able to provide long-term counseling needs for victims," Morgan says. "We have two excellent, Christian counseling services in our area, and in addition to continued pastoral counseling for families, we want to offer professional counseling services as well."

Morgan is also quick to note that even if someone had no connection to this particular tragedy, there are plenty of individuals who can be impacted due to Post Traumatic Stress disorders.

"This is a trigger event," Morgan explains. "What happened here can bring up traumatic events that happened to people in their past - and their need for help can be just as great."

Morgan says that many in the community are still struggling to find answers. "Our message is that God didn't cause this," Morgan says. "This is the result of sin in the world and God is more grieved than anyone about it."

For churches and individuals outside of the area wanting to know how to help, Morgan says people can contact the church for additional information about contributing to the recovery fund.

However, Morgan's greatest request is simple. "Don't forget Newtown."

He urges churches and individuals to continue to prayer for families and long-term recovery.

"I ask people to specifically pray for the healing and recovery of the victims' families; the wider school community, students and staff; and the responders - the police and people who had to be there," Morgan says. "Also pray for the community itself. Just like somebody who had someone break into their home, that sense of violation, the city has that feeling of violation as well.

"In some ways, we almost want to get the door closed a little bit, so people can get on with their lives and their normal routine," Morgan continues. "But as I was talking with the wife of Bob, the dispatcher, she told me how you'll think you're doing okay, but then all of a sudden something will remind you of what happened, and all the emotions come flooding back . . . . "

Yet for Morgan and the churches he's working with, the answer to the problem is clear.

"The real answer - not just for Newtown or the city of Danbury, but for the nation - is revival," Morgan states. "We are desperate for an awakening and a spiritual move by God. These things are only symptomatic of the real problem - so we are praying for a real move of God across the land, and for it to start in New England as He has done it before."

For more information about Brookfield First Assembly or for contact information, see its website.

 

Keywords: AG churches
Authors: Dan Van Veen

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