After years of declining membership, a Columbia church recently started a new ministry that is reconnecting that congregation to its North Central Columbia neighborhood. Hear the story of the outreach program recently taken on by the Wilkes Boulevard United Methodist Church.
Where do you go when you have nowhere else to turn? When a local day center for the homeless and evening soup kitchen needed a new home, Pastor Meg Hegemann stepped up and offered space in her church.
When Hegemann arrived in 2012 at Columbia's Wilkes Boulevard United Methodist Church to serve as the senior pastor to the nearly century-old congregation, she found a church that had grown apart from the neighborhood that it called home. Membership was down to near 40. "We celebrated our 100th anniversary in the fall of 2014. Coming into that there was a big question about 'If we closed our doors would the community even know? What difference are we making?' "
After a neighbor was murdered, the church began a discernment process. Hegemann asked, "Who are our neighbors? Christian scripture talks a lot about loving your neighbor, but we realized that we didn't even know who our neighbors were or what they were even experiencing." After a memorial service for victim Jerry Schneider, the church launched itself into providing services to homeless neighbors.
"We felt moved to live out that part of the scripture," said Hegemann. "We're not here to do things for or to other people, but we really want to be in relationship with folks and experience the mutual transformation that comes from that."
One result of the church's discernment process was the opening of Loaves and Fishes Soup Kitchen in the church basement and the Turning Point Day Center on the third floor. At Turning Point, homeless guests can take showers, store and wash clothes, and have a mailing address. "Beyond that, we are really trying to allow people who are often cast off an opportunity to improve the community around them and to give back," Hegemann said.
Some long-time members of the Wilkes Boulevard United Methodist Church left the flock as a result of the process. New members have since joined. The congregation is now up to 80.
Turning Point is an all-volunteer ministry of its host church. Jesse White is the manager. He called it "a place where people come and change their lives around. Homeless with nowhere to go come to Turning Point." A native of Grand Rapids, Michigan, White works with the between 60 and 70 guests who show up at the church each day looking for housing and work.
White knows firsthand what those at Turning Point are going through. "I once upon a time was homeless on the streets, didn't have nowhere to stay," he said. "I got a lot of relatives here, but when I came I didn't want to live under my relatives' roof, so I hung out on the streets. That's what made me strong." White attributes his manager role at Turning Point as providing him with a more stable and productive life.
Another Columbian who serves at Turning Point is Ric Doubet. He helps the guests create plans. "Everybody who has ever created a plan and stuck with it has been successful," he said. This takes trust, which Doubet says takes "just hanging out. Being genuine. Being real. When you are that vulnerable of a population, you read people really fast. Most of them have an amazing intuitive understanding of who you are and what your intentions are."
Many of Turning Point's guests have a history of bad relationships with institutions that are supposed to help them. This includes the foster care system and law enforcement. This history leads to a distrust of authority figures such as probation and police officers, employers and counselors. Those who run the Turning Point hope to be that rare exception: somebody they can trust.
Turning Point is located at 702 Wilkes Boulevard and is open each weekday from 8:00 a.m. until noon. Loaves and Fishes is a soup kitchen at the same location serving a dinner meal each evening at 5:00 p.m.
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