She didn’t know it then, but Joan Dibble’s volunteerism was about to deepen significantly when her pastor, Father Gerald O’Connor, asked her to attend a meeting of churches to discuss how to better serve the area’s poor.
"There were probably 25 people," recalled Dibble, a parishioner of St. Stanislaus in Bradford. "You look at this and think, ‘No, this isn’t going to work — we don’t have the people, we don’t have the resources.’"
"It’s been 12 years now," she added with a chuckle.
Indeed, the "Mustard Seed Ministries," as the group’s ministry came to be known, not only got off the ground in 1996 but now offer a range of support to central Steuben County residents. The independent, nonprofit ministry is made up of five Christian churches: St. Stanislaus, Altay Baptist, Tyrone United Methodist, Wayne Baptist and Weston Presbyterian. Funding and other means of support come from local residents, businesses and organizations along with the member churches.
Mustard Seed services include food pantries in Bradford and Tyrone; a thrift store in Tyrone that offers household goods and clothing; emergency financial aid for such expenses as rent, utilities, transportation and medicine; and financial counseling as well as referrals to existing programs. A significant recent development has been the addition of twice-per-month visits by a mobile food pantry from Food Bank of the Southern Tier, an agency of Catholic Charities. The large truck delivers fresh produce, dairy products, and other food and grocery items to those in need at no charge.
Mustard Seed serves a largely rural community surrounding two small lakes, Lamoka and Waneta. Ann Erdle, who like Dibble is a charter Mustard Seed member from St. Stanislaus, said the greatest number of requests are for basic needs — "the food, the clothing, the shelter, the energy."
"We have a lot of retired people, and people who are working at minimum-wage-paying jobs," Dibble noted.
"There are very few jobs available here, and the farms around are mostly old farms — some dairy production, but it’s hilly and not good farmland," added Bob DeYager of St. Stanislaus, a Mustard Seed volunteer. His wife, Jean Hubsch, has been involved from the beginning.
Erdle and her husband, Fred, take calls from people seeking financial assistance and are particularly sensitive to situations involving children, senior citizens or people with disabilities. She said they receive 130 to 150 calls per year, noting that "if it’s a cold season, we’re apt to get several calls a day." Dibble said that’s been the case this winter due to the high cost of gas and heating.
Erdle said the ministry is not equipped to make large allotments, so Mustard Seed often asks clients to reduce their deficits through other means before making up the difference. She added that Mustard Seed strives to aid in this effort by networking with local support agencies such as the Department of Social Services, Office for the Aging and Cornell Cooperative Extension.
Dibble, who oversees the food pantry in Bradford, said Mustard Seed’s emphasis on advocacy has helped in "bringing services to our people, not people going to them all of the time." She explained that those in need are not easily able to travel to larger communities several miles away. This is evidenced by the estimated 90 to 100 people whom DeYager said turn out for each mobile-food-pantry stop, with long lines having already formed by the time distribution begins.
DeYager said assistance also comes from the influx of summer residents due to the lakes.
"When people are closing up their summer places, cleaning out their cupboards before they go home, the last two summers we’ve gotten over a ton of food each year — which I think is amazing," he said.
The greatest support for Mustard Seed continues to come from its founding faith communities.
"All of the churches preach it from their pulpits," said DeYager, noting that Father O’Connor, who just retired last year, "pushed it quite hard with us."
Dibble said the area’s poverty was substantial well before the mid-1990s, but it wasn’t until the local churches bonded together that their voices were finally heard by other social-ministry entities.
"There were various attempts by individuals, but it wasn’t organized under an umbrella organization, so it never took off," she said. "Individually, it was hard to do anything. But as a group we could really reach out. We just kept insisting we are important over here."
She acknowledged that this union of faith communities stands in stark contrast to her childhood days in Bradford, during an era when she said "we weren’t allowed to go to someone’s wedding" if it was at a church of a different denomination.
"(Mustard Seed) has certainly brought the churches in the area together. I have friends I never would have had," Dibble said, adding that her involvement also has deepened her appreciation of "people’s situation in the world, and the needs in this area that are not being met."
"We have been blessed people, and not to give back would be shameful. That’s part of what drives us," Erdle said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Mustard Seed Ministries may be reached from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday at 607-292-3340 for financial matters and 607-292-6738 for all other matters. Or, write to Mustard Seed Ministries, PO Box 73, Tyrone, NY 14487 or e-mail email@example.com.