ST. ALBANS — Every month, social services, volunteer organizations, healthcare providers and a number of other groups come together at the Community Partnership meetings to discuss how they can collaborate and support one another.
Rev. Charlie Purinton, interim minister at the First Congregational Church of St. Albans, attended last Wednesday’s meeting and asked about one missing group: the clergy.
“My question is,” Purinton told the 30 or so other Community Partnership attendees, “where are the clergy in this room?”
“Something’s changed big time,” he said. Purinton added that there used to be joint clergy meetings to discuss social services and how to connect parishioners in need, but he is not aware of them any more. While Purinton refers anyone in need in his church to the Community Partnership members, he said he thought that was not the case in other St. Albans churches.
“I’d like to have a conversation with you about where the clergy are,” Purinton said. “I’d really like to see that change.”
The Community Partnership would, too, said Partnership Executive Leadership Team (PELT) member and Northwestern Counseling & Support Services Director of Community Relations Joseph Halko.
“As many of you know, when somebody is struggling, sometimes the first person they want to talk to is a reverend or pastor,” said Halko.
Purinton agreed. “It’s your need to be involved with these congregations.”
Purinton began the room-wide conversation with another question. “Anybody got any ideas?”
Amy Brewer of Northwestern Medical Center spoke up about members of the clergy she encountered recently during the Swanton Community Visit process organized by the Vermont Council on Rural Development.
“There were clergy involved in those conversations,” she said, adding they were especially vocal in a discussion of substance abuse.
Purinton agreed, as he was also at those meetings. “I was very pleased to see clergy there,” he said. “But what about your agencies? Each of you has some specialty that can assist a family.”
MaryEllen Mendl of Vermont 2-1-1, said that she receives calls from clergy. “Clergy is often one of our referral sources,” she said. “I think clergy is really important.”
On a walk past the churches on Church Street in St. Albans this morning, a mother and her 11-year-old son were seated on the steps of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church on Fairfield Street. The mother explained that she had recently escaped from a domestically violent household in another county, and that she and her son have attended the church for several weeks now.
“They’ve been super helpful,” she said of the St. Mary’s clergy. In addition to spiritual support, she said the church directed her and her son to local agencies such as Vermont 2-1-1 and Franklin Grand Isle Community Action.
“We got referred to this church in particular,” the woman added, indicating it was a supportive environment to enter.
Outside of the individual churches in St. Albans, Mary Harwood of Franklin County Home Health Agency suggested programs such as the Vermont Interfaith Action and the Joint Urban Ministry Project (JUMP), which are both based in the Burlington area, could extend up to Franklin and Grand Isle Counties.
“It’s one of the hubs that really gets people involved,” Harwood said of JUMP.
Purinton said, “That might be a model for up here. I just don’t know how to make it happen.”
Dave Southwick, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce suggested that church members might already be more involved than everyone realizes.
“There are a lot of people within the members of the church that are representing the church on a [community] board,” said Southwick. “You could say in a way that the church is already there. There’s quite a bit of communication going on … but it’s not necessarily the pastor himself.”
Melissa Lussier, of Turning Point, seconded Southwick. “I know our board is made up – in large part – [of church members],” she said.
“I think there is outreach being done,” Lussier added. “I think it’s not easily recognized.”
But, at other agencies such as the Community Justice Center, there is a lack of faith community involvement.
“We haven’t really found a pastor or a faith community that wants to participate,” said CJC director Marc Wennberg. “I don’t know exactly why that is.”
While interaction with clergy was mixed throughout the Community Partnership members, all agreed there could be better organization and collaboration, especially since clergy could help services get access to families needing help.
Halko said, “Every year, there is this resource directory that is put together. There’s other categories in here such as churches and places of worship.”
He added that he wanted to see all the organizations listed together in the directory to be actually working together. Several people suggested this could be encouraged through a Community Partnership fair, while others said local clergy should attend the meetings.
No final solution was made last Wednesday, though the question was left up to consideration by all attending the Community Partnership meeting and others involved in their work.
“How do we get this off the page?” Halko asked, pointing to the resource directory. “We need to find a way to have these organizations come off these pages and be more interactive.”