The congregation of Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest has formed a partnership with downstate Illinois farmers to provide assistance to the poor-from Haiti to Africa to India.

Five years ago, the congregation formed the partnership with Plainfield United Church of Christ in Plainfield, St. Paul Lutheran Church in downstate Forrest, and with seed and fertilizer companies. The Grace Lutheran and Plainfield congregations, along with the agriculture companies, provide money for crop inputs, which cost $220 per acre. The farmers in the St. Paul congregation donate farm equipment and labor.

Each year, the groups have combined their resources to support the farming of 40 or more acres. The crops from those acres are sold in the United States, and the proceeds then go to projects of the Foods Resource Bank, a Christian humanitarian organization. The bank works to ensure food security for people in the developing world by funding investments in agricultural production. This year, the three churches are sponsoring projects in Bosnia, Haiti and India. In the past, they have sponsored several projects in Africa.

The funds are used not for handouts but, for example, to improve water supplies and provide training in new methods of growing crops, said Mary Goetting, the leader of Grace Lutheran’s Benevolence Committee.

The money can make a big difference. “One of the mothers used to have to collect 14 bundles of tree limbs [for cooking fuel], and she would have to travel 6-8 hours per day to gather that,” said Grace Lutheran Associate Pastor Phyllis Kersten. “Now they have built a new stove [using] anthill sand, and that only takes one bundle of wood a day.”

In the partership’s first four years, the three churches contributed over $325,000. That figure includes matching contributions by US AID, a government development agency, for donations to programs in Africa, where, Kersten said, most of the money has gone.

The three congregations come together in Forrest each October to celebrate their harvest. The groups share a meal, and families go on combine rides and get to interact with farm animals. “We get together, and you realize how many false ideas we have about what country people are like,” said Goetting.

The program fits the River Forest congregation well, she added. “The church’s mission is not just handing out money and handing out food,” she said. “[Foods Resource Bank] allows us to do something that empowers people and doesn’t make them dependent.”

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