Magazine article The Christian Century

In Hard-Hit Indiana, Churches Pull Together

Magazine article The Christian Century

In Hard-Hit Indiana, Churches Pull Together

Article excerpt

The annual Family Fest at Bethany Christian Schools in Goshen, Indiana, is usually a joyous event as families auction off handmade quilts, furniture and other goods in the annual school fund-raiser. But this year, double-digit unemployment rates overshadowed the event with a sense of anxiety. The event failed to match last year's proceeds.

Indiana's Elkhart County has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country--20 percent, which is more than twice the national average. And in this overwhelmingly Christian community with a significant Mennonite population, churches are being called upon more than ever to help meet physical and spiritual needs.

"People ... know that there but by the grace of God go I," school principal Allen Dueck told the PBS program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly. "It could be me tomorrow or my family member. So I think there's a real sense of pulling together in ways we can."

This is RV country, where more than 60 percent of the nation's recreational vehicles have been manufactured. But in these tough economic times people aren't buying luxury items, and the RV industry has collapsed.

Factories have been closed or have made drastic cutbacks. And the ripple effect is touching virtually everyone. Many believe that the unemployment rate is actually much higher because the official numbers don't include those who don't file for unemployment benefits. In parts of Indiana people who don't file for benefits include undocumented immigrants and Amish people who sometimes take factory jobs when they can't make a living in farming.

Derald Bontrager, chief operating officer of the Jayco RV company, said: "It's a gut-wrenching experience to go from 2,200 employees down to 1,100, particularly in this environment because you know that [for every employee] you lay off, the chance of finding any meaningful employment in the future is almost nonexistent."

A leader in his local Mennonite congregation, Bontrager says he is dealing with a difficult moral equation. "In many cases, the people that we're no longer able to employ are the same people that I go to church with on Sunday," he said. "I see them at the basketball games on the weekend. …

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