Officially, the offer of free oil changes for single moms on a Saturday this month was supposed to be good from 10 a.m. to noon.

But there were folks in line outside Spirit of Joy Christian Church, amid farm fields at the southern end of Lakeville, by 8:30. And the church members who'd volunteered to help didn't get to head back home until an hour after the event was supposed to end.

"We served 54 people and referred another nine to a garage," said Pastor David Cobb. "I think we are at capacity."

Although an oil change may seem a "little thing," he said, "it's the first to go if people hit a hard place economically. Yet when the car breaks down, you are in trouble. In the suburbs, you need a car.

"It's easy for us to do, it's something people need, and it gets the whole church galvanized around it. We feel God is calling us to serve in this way."

A national research institution just this week identified the Twin Cities area as one of the top 10 metros across the nation for the speed at which poverty is rising in suburbs.

But people like Cobb didn't need to hear that from outsiders. They see the distress close up.

"People have this impression of Lakeville as pretty wealthy," he said, "but the fact is, every community around the Twin Cities is a mix of different backgrounds.

"We have a trailer park nearby, and there are others in the area. One of our members, a teacher in Eagan, has a Community Bookshelf project [ nity-BookShelf/277125448967710] for kids, handing out books. People are stretched."

It's year 10 for the church's oil change offer, which takes place twice a year — always on Mother's Day weekend, and at variable times in the autumn.

You knew it was Minnesota, because you couldn't take five steps without someone offering coffee — yet again.

As church members such as Jody Gerst and Nancy Haddorff crawled beneath engines in oily sweatshirts, recipients like Sarah Steber of Apple Valley enjoyed snacks and fruit in the fellowship hall inside.

"A friend told me about this," she said, "and this is my second year."

Mother of a pair of kids, 9 and 2, she brought in a 2009 Toyota Corolla with 66,000 miles on it – hardly a junker, you may say, but it's not her main car.

"My junker is back home, and doesn't work well. I'm borrowing this car. Money is tight, and while this may seem like a small thing, it's a big deal to a lot of people."

People who serve the suburban poor, or study the issue, often stress the mismatch between hard times and the whole suburban environment, and one big issue for lots of people is the car.

"Many of the requests to our partner network have to do with transportation," said Beth Loechler, executive director of F.I.S.H., a Scott County-based nonprofit connecting needs with volunteers.

"Sometimes an actual car is just needed, but more often it's car repair, brake repair, a new carburetor — usually in order to be able to access day care or maintain a job."

It's that $800 breakdown that creases faces, even in upper-middle-class homes, but is a full-blown crisis to those who are truly struggling.

"The main thing I like about it," said Doug Abere, "is that it's a neglected part of the needs people have. It's a fun thing for the church to do, a Mother's Day tradition that honors the hard work moms do."

This was the second outing for him — he's a transportation planner but no mechanic. "Everyone climbs a learning curve," he said with a laugh. "It's surprising, the similarities and differences from one vehicle to another."

As the need and the response has grown over the years, he said, the issue does arise within the church of what's next.

"While we have not really been aggressive about pushing this — advertising or promoting it — we're sort of reaching a point, or close to it, of reaching our max," Abere said. "One thing our church is interested in is to maybe get to know our neighbors in other churches and partner with them, not just serving single moms but others as well. I recommend it as a fun way to help our neighbors."

Or as Cobb put it: "we don't have a copyright on this idea. We'd be happy for any competition."

David Peterson • 952-746-3285