Multi-denominational Unity Inspires Ministry

Cooperative Emergency Outreach (CEO) has done something remarkable in Washington County in northwest Arkansas. The all-volunteer, faith-based nonprofit organization was founded in 1990 by a coalition of six Christian congregations across the theological spectrum, including Evangelicals, mainline Christians, and Catholics. Their vision statement tells it all:

            “CEO is a COOPERATIVE group of churches assisting members of the community in EMERGENCY situations as part of an OUTREACH ministry.”

Today the organization is supported by 23 churches, each of which hosts a minimum of two canned food drive each year, contributes financial resources, and provides volunteers. Each congregation is also represented in CEO’s governance.

In 2015 CEO helped over 12,000 clients in northwest Arkansas with rent, utilities, food, gasoline, prescriptions, bus passes, clothing, and gas. About 5% of those clients were homeless, and about 15% of clients were under the age of 10. Approximately 85% of all donations went directly to the client, with 15% going toward building overhead. There is no paid staff.

Good for Churches

At its core, CEO is a Christian outreach ministry. Instead of the 23 churches setting out to provide emergency assistance alone, they have pooled their resources in order to increase their efficiency and effectiveness. “The essential idea is to consolidate the social outreach resources of the 23 churches so they have a broader impact,” said Joe Dushan, the president of CEO.

The organization’s mission is to provide emergency assistance to community members in need. According to CEO’s website, “When a financial emergency occurs, whether due to illness, job loss, natural disaster, or any other emergency situation, CEO can help by providing food, gasoline vouchers, clothing vouchers, utility assistance, rental assistance, and prescription vouchers.”

CEO, then, is one answer to how churches, especially smaller congregations, can respond to financial difficulties while remaining committed to outreach to the needy in their communities. Lowell Grisham, the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, Ark., noted that CEO also helps to prevent duplication, and offers a consistent way of evaluating the needs of clients and responding appropriately. But Grisham also said that being a member congregation of CEO should not get the church off the hook. “If a church uses CEO as a response to every request for help, it would be my opinion that church is not doing its duty,” he argued.

Moreover, this collaboration builds relationships between churches that might not otherwise work together. “I think the Church is always better when we work together,” said Grisham. “Service is one of the ways to build bridges and develop relationships across the theological divide.”

Beyond that, CEO has built relationships with non-religious organizations, like the Post Office, the public library, and the University of Arkansas. In 1990, CEO began its operations in the basement of the county jail, Dushan said, and later moved to a facility that was owned by the local hospital. When the director of the public library found out what was going on, he wanted to help. “The director of the public library agreed to host a Food for Fines program,” said Dushan. “If you have an overdue library book, instead of paying the late fee, your fine is forgiven if you donate a can of food. Last year we got almost 3,000 pounds of food.”

While between 60% and 70% of resources come from member churches, private organizations and citizens contribute significantly to the program. In addition to the public library, CEO has been supported by Tyson Foods, memorial gifts, the local Farmers Market, and the local hospital, just to name a few. Even children like to help CEO. “There was a seven year old kid who told his mother he didn’t want presents that year, but wanted to donate to CEO,” said Dushan.

Good for Volunteers

CEO is not only good for the churches that collaborate, but it also plays an important part in the lives of the volunteers. In a 2015 survey of volunteers I conducted at CEO, I found that over 80% of volunteers reported they were satisfied or very satisfied after working at CEO. These individuals also reported they were motivated by altruism, religious duty, a commitment to social justice, and the social nature of volunteering.

According to CEO’s website, around 200 volunteers logged more than 6,000 volunteer hours last year. And everyone, from the president of the organization down, is a volunteer.

These volunteers reported the greatest rewards for volunteering with CEO were the opportunity to use their skills to help others and the chance to get to know other volunteers.But more than anything, “the volunteers volunteer in an effort to help their brothers and sisters in need,” said Dushan.

There are many ways for volunteers to contribute. Dushan told a story of a volunteer named Ernie who worked with CEO for 10 years, and only stopped volunteering in his 90s. “Ernie was the coordinator for our food pantry. He would go to the food bank to pick up food, shop for items to supplement what the food bank had and what the food drives provided, managed storage and distribution, set guidelines, and worked for CEO until he no longer could.” said Dushan. “He got out of his volunteer work as much as we got out of it. He had a place to go, a mission to accomplish, and people he enjoyed to be with for a number of years.” That sense of purpose and mission is not only true with Ernie, but with all of CEO’s regular volunteers.

CEO shows that different people and different churches can come together to do God’s work--even in a time marked by controversy, cynicism, and vitriol. Loving our neighbors does not require the same worldviews or theological beliefs. It only requires love and a commitment to be the hands and feet of Christ at work in the world.

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