Evansville, IN — Aldersgate UMC recently joined local organizations in Evansville, Indiana in an effort to help eradicate the $53,000 lunch debt amassed by local schools in the area. The church began the challenge in July and in just a few weeks exceeded their goal to raise $2,641 to pay off Harrison High School’s debt.

During Sunday morning worship, young children would invite members of the congregation to take part in a “noisy offering,” a tithe made up predominantly of loose change.

In a Facebook post shared on Aldergate UMC’s account on July 29, just weeks before the start of the new school year, the church announced that the collection had raised “$3,330 in noisy offerings.” The remaining monies from the collection would go toward paying off the lunch debts of other schools in the area that face a similar predicament.

“The whole effort to come together and pay off the lunch debt for students and families in our city created a great sense of community, “ said Jamie Clark. Jamie is the daughter of Rev. Jim and Megan Clark. Jim serves as Senior Pastor at Aldersgate UMC and Megan is the Conference Assistant assigned to the South and Southeast Districts. Jamie is part of the communications team at the church. When she and Abbey Doyle, the other member of the communications team, learned about the church’s focus to help amend the debt, she suggested starting a noisy offering and inviting the young children to be a part of the collective effort.

“I love the idea of kids helping kids, especially when it’s something that they can so easily relate to,“ Jamie shared. “A lot of issues the Church helps with are things that the kids and sometimes even the youth can’t understand or relate to, but school lunches are universal.”

Rev. Jim Clark shared that the church had little idea that Harrison High School students were struggling unpaid school lunch debt, though they are located in close proximity to the church and the church provides breakfast for a large number of their students each week as part of an outreach program. It was not until his family shared a conversation with the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation Foundation (EVSC) that he learned of the immediate need to respond to the growing issue.

He said, “Relationships with our community — business owners and leaders — is a gigantic piece of doing ministry. Having open communication with them will help us become more aware of the things we otherwise would not be aware of.”

The idea for the collection originally stemmed from conversations outside the walls of the church.

Clint Hoskins hosts a charity night every month at the High Score Saloon in Evansville. Last year, profits from one of those nights were designated to help with the school lunch debt issue. “This cause caught a lot of attention last year. We knew we wanted to revisit it in 2019,” he said.

Having been a part of the school lunch program as a student, Clint felt the need to get involved when the unpaid lunch debt continued to garner attention.

“It’s personal experience in the free, reduced lunch program that drove me to help. As a student that benefited from the program, it’s one I want to see protected and cared for by the community.”

Clint reached out to businesses and organizations from around the community to build momentum and corral support around the need to cancel the lunch debt to allow children and families to focus on what’s important.

“I told my personal story. I put my money where my mouth was. I did my best to lead by example and let those that would listen know that whatever we have we can’t take with us and if we’re able to do good, we owe it to ourselves and our community.”

The school lunch debt crisis is one that has been making national headlines in the past year. School districts throughout the U.S. are facing steep financial pressure as the issue continues to grow. An article by CNN reports that the median amount of unpaid school debt across the nation is $2500, with debt accruals ranging from single digits to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Significantly, the number of students without means to pay for their lunch has increased by over 40% from the previous year.

Like Aldersgate, local churches have seen an opportunity to be missional and respond to an urgent need and they continue to work to find effective solutions. Royse City First UMC in Texas paid off thousands of dollars in lunch debt accrued by students in the Royse City Independent School District. In an interview with a local TV station, Pastor Chris Everson stated: “If the church does not impact the community the church is in, then the church isn’t doing its job.”

“It’s a fundamental issue that we can’t fix,” said Clint. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t fundraise, bring attention to it, and pressure the powers that be to find solutions that remove the pressure from the children and struggling families and let them focus on studies and being a family.”

Megan Clark shared, “I thought this was just a way for Aldersgate to help students and their families in Evansville and God said “Oh no! We can do much more than that.”

Excitedly, she added “I love when God moves outside the box we originally had Him in.

“I’m happy to be a part of a church that can step up and give generously for something that affects few of them, “said Rev. Clark. “It’s good to see that their hearts break for the things that break God’s heart.”

Photos by Jamie Clark