- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 5, 2009

Michael Newberry’s refusal to seek financial assistance from his church isn’t because he wouldn’t love to - it’s because the place known for its giving needs help itself.

The 52-year-old member of Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church has remained jobless, though he has interviewed for 25 to 30 jobs in the past nine months - evidence of the nation’s recession. Mr. Newberry said he suffers from a leg disease that keeps him on crutches. He receives financial help from the government, including food stamps, but when it comes to asking for help from the Northwest Washington church, he doesn’t bother.

“I know there have been people who have been helped, but I know there have been some that have been turned away because there’s just not enough money,” Mr. Newberry said. “There’s barely enough money to keep the lights on sometimes.”

Church budget problems run deeply enough that the Rev. Clinton Kersey, the church’s senior pastor, refused to specify just how much trouble the congregation is in. Mr. Kersey would only say that the budget is down 20 percent so far this year, and he indicated it might get even smaller.

It’s a vicious cycle - people are forced to limit donations at a time when the church needs them the most.

According to a report on annual charitable contributions released earlier this month by the Giving Institute, religious organizations took in an estimated $106 billion in 2008, a 5.5 percent increase over 2007. Nevertheless, several of the nation’s largest religious charities are reporting declining donations and budget cuts.

Catholic Charities USA saw a $300,000 decrease in income from June 15, 2008, to June 15, 2009, said spokesman Roger Conner, who attributed this loss to decreased donations.

Jewish National Fund spokeswoman Jodi Bodner said that while the fund’s income remains on par with last year’s, the organization still decided in October to cut its national and regional fundraising department budgets by 20 percent as a preventative measure, given the state of the economy. While no employees have been fired, Ms. Bodner said JNF has frozen both hiring and salaries and cut travel and mailing expenses.

David Beckworth, an assistant professor of economics at Texas State University, called a study that revealed a rise in religious charitable donations “a puzzle that defies common sense or intuition,” and wonders where the number in the study came from - how it was measured, what churches were measured, and other specifics.

“You can give more time or you can give more money,” Mr. Beckworth said. “If unemployment goes up, then suddenly I’m not as able to give as much money, and instead it might be easier to give more time.”

Indeed, Mr. Newberry said that although he hasn’t been able to donate as much money as he wishes, he contributes in other ways, such as ushering and lectoring.

The beginning of the year saw the biggest cuts to hit some organizations, as the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington cut 18 positions from its 200-employee operation, including administrative and management positions. Budget cuts in various departments ranged from 15 percent to 20 percent, in hopes of bridging last year’s nearly $2 million operating deficit.

Despite the deficit, donations have remained steady, and the archdiocese has increased its tuition assistance, giving out $4 million - more than four times what it was able to provide parents with in 2008.

The Episcopal Diocese of Washington laid off four employees at the beginning of the year, including one senior staff member - an administration director - two support staffers and a property manager. From its $3.9 million budget, the diocese made a series of staff and budget cuts to make up for a $400,000 shortfall from initial revenue projections, which included $357,800 less in pledges than anticipated.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld at the National Synagogue in Northwest said he also has noticed a decrease in donations.

“There have been people who have lost their jobs who might have been the synagogue’s largest supporters,” Mr. Herzfeld said. “Now, it’s the synagogue’s responsibility to support these people financially and emotionally.”

In fact, donations to the synagogue have decreased so much that it reduced its budget by 10 percent from last year, prompting members to rely heavily on e-mail rather than the post office and using volunteers to put on functions rather than paying outside sources.

Demand for church aid from food pantries, among other programs, has noticeably increased, some area churches are reporting.

At Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, more members are using church resources just to get by.

Only five of 120 members are unemployed, Mr. Kersey said, though he elaborated that “unemployed is one thing, but underemployed is another.”

“I can’t tell you how many people have come to me who have jobs whose salaries aren’t covering their expenses,” he said, citing examples of members who earn as little as $12,000 to $15,000 per year, which is well below the poverty threshold, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

To help others cope with the economic strain, Samaritan Ministry hosts two job fairs a year connecting those in need with an opportunity to bring home a paycheck.

Thursday’s fair at Martin Luther King Library in Northwest showed signs of the recession as some employers who promised to attend backed out at the last minute because they could not afford to hire anyone.

“People are being very gracious, but I imagine this deflates them a bit,” said Kathy Doxsee, the ministry’s program director, about those wanting to apply at specific companies.

Even the ministry had to eliminate a position recently that was only around for six months, which followed up with attendees and employers to see who was hired and for what company, Ms. Doxsee added.

About 300 people attended the event, now in its third year.

Lysenia Carroll, a 20-year-old mother and D.C. resident, has been unemployed since January, after quitting her job at Motherhood Maternity to care for her 16-month-old daughter, Lezlie. Ms. Carroll has been to three job fairs this month, including the ministry’s, as part of a government program through Maximus Inc., a Virginia-based consulting group.

“It’s not easy raising a baby,” Ms. Carroll said. “It’s not easy to do that without a job. Some don’t have a high school diploma or a GED.”

Ms. Carroll, who finished her GED when she was seven months pregnant and on bed rest and now attends classes at Everest Institute, said as the price of diapers, wipes and baby food increases, so does her need for a job.

“As long as I’ve got the Man upstairs, I’ll be OK,” she said. “The economy is so messed up, it’s harder to find a job. You have to know somebody to get anywhere.”

For principal Pat Wilson, keeping students enrolled and teachers employed at St. Matthias Apostle School is proving difficult in a time when money is tight.

The Lanham school faces its own economic battles as some students’ parents lose their overtime shifts, their jobs, their incomes and their livelihood.

While they scramble to pay tuition, which for one child is a $6,550 standard fee or $5,000 for parishioners for the 2009-10 school year, the school struggles to provide financial assistance to those in need.

“It’s very difficult and certainly an area of concern,” Ms. Wilson said. “We’re looking at maintaining our own viability at the school, but at the same time trying to assist our families who need support.”

The school was forced to freeze salaries for its 26 employees, 10 of whom are full-time teachers.

“It’s a very delicate balance to manage income and expenses here,” Ms. Wilson said. “But the reaction has been very positive because everyone is very well aware that in other jurisdictions, people are being laid off, furloughed or terminated.”

The Rev. Tom Knoll, pastor at Trinity Lutheran Churchin Northwest,said he’ll be “very concerned” come November if the downturn at his congregation continues. Donations, which are the church’s main source of income, are at $140,000 to date, down $17,000 from last year. The church’s $154,000 budget is small enough that if donations continue to dwindle, one of its two pastors will be laid off next year, he said.

“Those of us who are religious people have gone into this profession knowing that life is never certain, so we trust that God will work things out for ourselves and for our families,” Mr. Knoll said about possibly losing his job.

Louis B. Jones II, pastor at the District’s Pilgrim Baptist Church, said a 20 percent decrease in donations, rising taxes and higher bills - including an electric bill that is up 35 percent from last year - have forced the church to cut its overall spending by 10 percent.

That means cutting back on extras, such as food before meetings, he added.

“By the grace of God, we haven’t had to cut employees … but we’re right there on the edge,” Mr. Jones said.

Andrea Billups contributed to this report.

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