Church Erases School Lunch Debt Across Eleven Districts

 In All Church of God, CHOG, Give Life, Great Lakes

By Carl Stagner

Bob Hawker is the Next Steps pastor at Salem Church of God in Clayton, Ohio. He’s also the husband of a public school teacher. Bob knows that school lunch debt may not be on the minds of the general public, but it’s a very real issue for school administrators, food service providers, teachers, and too many children. He had heard about a friend’s church in Florida helping to pay off lunch debt at a local school there, and wondered about the possibility of his own congregation rallying together to achieve a similar goal. After all, the church was entering into a teaching series on generosity, and what better way to learn God’s perspective on the subject than to put it into practice? He and his Dayton-metro congregation had no idea how the effort would take off when the goal was presented of raising $14,654 for the two school districts closest to the church. But the generosity of Salem Church of God and the surrounding community was unleashed in dramatic fashion, smashing their goal as $43,448 came in, and erasing the lunch debt across not just two, but eleven school districts.

“Let’s be honest,” Pastor Bob says. “Most people hear a series on generosity, and they know a ‘tithe talk’ is coming. But what if we gave to our community and taught it’s more blessed to give than receive?” Before setting a fundraising goal, the church had to find out how much money was needed to cover the debt. They reached out to the first school district and discovered the debt had accrued to about $3,000. Okay, that would be manageable. Expecting a similar figure, they approached the second school district. Eleven thousand dollars.

“We paused and prayed, and wondered if we had bit off more than we could chew!” Bob explains. “But we pressed on and decided to present the goal, no advanced notice. Obviously, it turned out awesome.”

Pastor Steve Southards being interviewed by the local news.

The story quickly caught the attention of local news outlets and, within a few days, had been picked up by ABC News, Fox News, K-Love radio, and other national news organizations. Pastor Bob and Salem’s lead pastor Steve Southards found themselves in front of the camera, responding a number of media inquiries. As exciting as the media coverage has been, it was nothing compared to the exhilaration of notifying the schools and delivering the checks.

“The response was varied, but most often the schools were initially shocked,” Bob recalls. “My favorite response was from an assistant food service manager who, upon hearing this, shouted, ‘Linda! You have got to hear what this man just said. Now, sir, say what you just said to me again, I have you on speaker phone!’ Most checks were delivered to the superintendent, who often made sure the food service manager was present. I did get to visit one cafeteria and thank the ladies who, at the time, were in the middle of preparing lunches. I received an awesome hug from a woman holding back tears until she exclaimed, ‘That’s enough, them pretzels are ’bout to burn!”

On March 1, each of the school districts were invited to Salem’s Sunday gathering to be recognized and celebrated. An incredible nine out of eleven schools were represented that morning, with someone from each one receiving a giant display check with “paid in full” spelled out in large red letters. “Our March 1 service was all about being spontaneously generous to meet an immediate need,” Bob explains. “Creating margin in our lives gives us the availability to move spontaneously…. We recognize, like the blessing of the fish and loaves, when we try to meet the needs of our community and world with our own resources, we come up short. But when we give it to God, he blesses it, breaks it, and does immeasurably more than we could ever imagine.”

Pastor Bob Hawker celebrating with school reps at Salem.

Of course, Salem Church of God recognizes that their efforts, as amazing as they were, doesn’t eliminate the recurring problem of school lunch debt. Sadly, lunch debt will continue to accrue. But this reality doesn’t lessen the power or impact the church made on the community. Furthermore, to keep the assistance going, Salem Church of God established an “Angel Fund” for their closest school district. Beyond that, the church hopes that their act of radical giving—“hilarious generosity,” as they called it—will inspire other churches to do go and do likewise.

“The people of Salem responded generously and started a generosity movement!” Pastor Steve insists. “I love being a part of a church that goes looking for trouble, with a passion to right a wrong. This thing took on a life of its own, and I’m incredibly proud of Salem. It’s great for the church to be known what we are for and not for what we are against. I have heard from several other churches who are doing this or have already done this. Their hope, too, was that this would spread, and I am grateful that it has. It was a group effort, from a women’s Bible study giving, to a kindergarten class that raised funds—we did it together!”

Watch one of the local news video reports on this story. Then learn more about the Church of God at Feature image © Can Stock Photo / mflippo.

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