When the Christmas lights get unplugged at the end of the year, Branson fully reclines into its off-season. Some retired local residents appreciate the lack of traffic. Some successful business managers welcome the time to recharge the batteries. But for those on the bottom of the economic ladder, it can be a long, cold winter.
“People hear about everything that is going on here, and think they can come here to get a job. That’s the case eight or nine months of the year,” said Rev. Ross Fulton of Branson UMC. “But when things close down, they have a hard time.”
A recent survey found that about 1,000 people in Branson live in motel. Most are doing this because they can’t come up with the money for a deposit and the first and last month’s rent for an apartment, so they stay in a motel and pay week to week. If their money runs out, they may end up living in their cars, or in the woods. January through March each year, area churches provide free meals one day a week. Branson UMC steps up to the plate on Thursday evening. Typically 180 to 230 show up for dinner and warm place to spend a few hours.
“People see the billboards and the glitz, and aren’t aware of the problems we have here with homelessness,” Fulton said. Attractions want to make the area look its best in promotional advertising, but the images displayed are not everyone’s reality.
The economic challenges are much higher in the off-season, but there is many people struggle year-round. In late September, Branson UMC took the lead on coordinating Project Homeless Connect for the community. Local agencies like the Red Cross, Lions Club and shelters came together in one place to offer their services to people in need. Member Larry Johnson said the event went very well.
“We had more than 200 people come through, and many of them were able to get Social Security cards or identification cards, and then get connected with agencies in the community that can help them,” he said.
The average wage of a service sector job in Branson is about $8 – $8.50 per hour, but many don’t offer 40 hours a week. A local organization called “Jesus Was Homeless” delivers 425 meals to people in motels and other places around Branson every Thursday, and Johnson said they could deliver twice that many. Some members of Branson UMC help support Jesus Was Homeless, and on Thanksgiving the church hosted the organization’s third annual “Love Your Neighbor” dinner. More than 1,000 people were fed.
In 2009, Branson UMC raised $7,400 that was used to bring a semi-truck full of approximately $50,000 worth of food and other items to Branson through an organization called People Against Children Starving in the USA.
The church runs a thrift shop five days a week, which is particularly busy during Christmas shopping season. It takes about 45 volunteers to keep the shop going. The church is also involved in a faith-based medical center.
Branson UMC is in a high-profile location, right on Highway 76. During peak season, Fulton estimates half or more of his congregation are tourists who are visiting. But for those who aren’t just visiting, caring for their neighbors is top of the mind.
“They are a very mission-minded people,” Fulton said of the congregation.
That isn’t going to change. Johnson is meeting with the local mayors and other leaders to ask what the church can do to make a difference in the community.
“We’re going to do something big next year, we just don’t know what it is yet,” he said.