Like many communities in the Valley, Gilbert is prosperous and flourishing. But look a little deeper, and you will find hidden pockets of poverty. The faces of poverty in Gilbert may not be at all what you expect.
Open Arms Care Center is a faith-based food and clothing bank serving Gilbert. It is an independent not-for-profit supported by a collaboration of local churches. A pastor and a group of volunteers founded Open Arms as a ministry of Sun Valley Community Church in 2000. Fourteen years later, Open Arms gives out upwards of 1500 food boxes each month.
Co-director Tiffney Dale says that, in the early years, they mostly served a migratory population of Spanish-speaking day laborers and farm workers. But since the onset of what has been called “The Great Recession,” all of that has changed. Clients of Open Arms are now primarily working poor—families who were scraping by before, but now can’t make ends meet each month. Most are also now primary English speakers.
Open Arms serves the community by providing a safe place for emergency food while helping families get back on their feet.
Tiffney vividly recalls one such family. A mother and her 15-year-old daughter came in for a food box one Saturday. After a divorce and foreclosure, this mother and daughter were living in her car. The mother worked as a night security guard, so the daughter hid in the car in the parking lot and slept while her mother was on duty. It was the middle of summer.
Tiffney couldn’t simply give this family a few cans of food and walk away. She and her husband ended up renting them a hotel room for a short time. Once the mother got a few paychecks under her belt and was able to rent an apartment, the church came together to furnish and supply it.
This is a great example of the way Open Arms serves the community—providing a safe place for emergency food and helping families get back on their feet.
While there are many examples of families who were able to move on from needing Open Arms’ services, Tiffney says there are a handful of people who are “lifers,” picking up food boxes twice per month—as often as they are allowed. These include elderly people living on a fixed income and raising grandchildren, people with disabilities that make it very difficult for them to work, and people with addictions and mental illness. Open Arms has given a lot of thought to issues of dependency, yet ultimately, Tiffney says, “We just decided it’s between them and God.”
While there are many places around the Valley serving the poor, one thing that makes Open Arms special is the way local churches are working together to support it. The collaborators are Sun Valley Community Church, Wonderful Mercy Church, First United Methodist Church, Mission Community Church, and Sunrise Chapel of the East Valley. How is it that churches with different resources, different priorities, even different theologies, are able to partner effectively? Tiffney says, “God just does it. There has never been a power struggle. Everyone is focused on the common goal—just providing for people. The beliefs don’t clash because everyone is just there to serve.”
Even so, collaboration is not always smooth sailing. Years ago, one of the primary partner churches decided to stop their financial support. Open Arms is small, and very dependent on their supporting churches, so this created a huge budget deficit. Another church is very generous with food donations, but has not committed to financial support. And then there is the question of who gets to be part of the collaboration—would other faith communities outside of orthodox Christianity be accepted? So far, the answer is no. Tiffney says that’s because Christian faith is an important part of who they are, and that they encourage volunteers to pray with and for clients.
What is Tiffney’s advice for those seeking to serve the poor or to galvanize community collaborations? It’s all about relationship, she says.
With churches, you have to build relationships with decision-makers. With volunteers, relationship and training are key to keeping people committed and to helping them deal with the ups and downs of serving. Relationships are important in the community too. Schools and businesses can be great resources—holding food drives and mobilizing volunteers—but it usually starts with building relationships. With the clients, relationships bridge the gap between “us and them,” restoring dignity and humanity.
When her son was young, Tiffney was in the habit of bringing him with her when she was volunteering at Open Arms. One day while he was there, a girl from his class came in with her mother for a food box. After they left, Tiffney’s son said sadly, “I didn’t know kids at my school were poor.”
The poor, now more than ever, are our neighbors, our co-workers, our children’s classmates. Yet we often do not see their needs simply because we don’t expect them to have any. Perhaps the real beauty of Open Arms is that it provides a place for all of us to build relationships that acknowledge poverty and thereby move beyond it.
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