CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. — We did a focus group here as part of strategic planning at Trinity Episcopal Church.
Question: if you stood on the edge of your church’s property and looked outward, rather than inward as we usually do, what would you see?
A public school kindergarten teacher spoke about kids who come to school hungry and wearing shabby clothing. She started to discuss the family chaos her kids describe during sharing time, but she began to weep and couldn’t speak at all.
“We see kids born into addictive families,” she said. “Their fine-motor skills are missing. Your heart breaks for them. They try so hard, but they don’t have the at-home support. Some parents are struggling just to put food on the table.”
A company commander from the Army’s Fort Campbell sees “brokenness” among her soldiers. Many joined the military to escape deprivation back home, but it doesn’t always work. “They come from families with too many children,” she said, “gang violence in their former home. They have no money here because they’re supporting family back home.”
“People struggle because they aren’t emotionally or spiritually equipped to deal with life’s circumstances, not even ordinary bumps in the road.”
“I see a lot of stress and pain, but not all from combat. Suicidal thoughts, domestic abuse, alcoholism. These problems came with them. It isn’t a uniquely military issue. It’s people, it’s life. The military is a microcosm.”
A college professor said many students slog through four-year degrees with little hope of getting a job after graduation. “A lot of students … would do better getting a vocational education,” he said. But they need the tuition assistance and loans in order to live.
Even then, the university’s food pantry distributes more food to students every year, said a campus staffer. “We see students going through the food line several times; this can be the only food they get.” A local Baptist congregation hands out Pop Tarts just so students will have something to eat.
“I don’t think we understand the magnitude of hunger out there,” said a retired chaplain, estimating that 25 percent of seniors go to bed hungry.
Selling a house here is difficult, said a local realtor. Foreclosures are high, especially among military families who bought more than they could afford and then were reassigned.
Even though Clarksville advertises itself as a “great place for retirement,” that is mostly untrue, said participants. One exception is hospice, said a man who is charged with caring for his mentally disabled mother, after his five siblings bailed on him.
“Substance abuse is a huge problem,” said a veteran pastor. The Army officer described an epidemic of “binge drinking” among soldiers.
It went on like this for nearly three hours, while the team members from Trinity took notes. This is what guests described in a middle American city of 133,000, where income levels are relatively high, schools relatively good and churches still largely functional.
The next phase in this planning team’s work just got a lot more serious.
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)
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