By Fred Koenig
A dozen years ago I was in Kansas City interviewing Rev. Dan Bonner at Grand Avenue Temple. As I got ready to leave, he asked where I was going from there. “Grace United,” I replied. “Excellent,” he said. “Sharon Garfield. She’s a long-distance runner.”
I then drove a few blocks over, and saw that his long-distance runner label was not to be taken literally. Sharon wasn’t physically built like a marathoner, but I learned she possessed a determination that any endurance athlete would envy.
Sharon went to Kansas City because she was drawn there by its problems. When she first went into ministry she was inspired by the book “The Cross and the Switchblade.” She was a Peace with Justice volunteer for the General Board of Church and Society, and in 1990 she was appointed pastor of Grand Avenue Temple and Grace United, two churches in and near downtown. The next year Grace United became a single point charge.
While at Grace United the church provided a plethora of services to the community, and was often the location for funerals that were the result of gang violence. But the church struggled to maintain its historic structure. When it was hit by lightning, the United Methodist Church was moved to Wesley Heights on 18th Street. Unfortunately the congregation didn’t follow. So Grace United UMC closed. But Sharon stayed, as director of a not-for-profit organization called Grace United. She retired early as a United Methodist elder, and continued her work in the location.
In 2012 I was doing some research about urban violence in Kansas City. I decided to check in with Sharon, since she had spent years living in the middle of what was at times one of the most violent neighborhoods in the state. I wasn’t sure how she would react to a phone call from a Conference employee, since she retired early to follow her call ministry independent of a Conference appointment. I wasn’t met with hostility, but with kindness and appreciation for taking an interest. “The Conference gave us all the property, which was very unusual,” Sharon said. “It was in pretty bad shape, though, especially after the lightning strike. For a while we were worshipping without a west wall.”
But church went on, with some help from people in the community, and some big partners, like Church of the Resurrection.
“We just continued to operate as we had before,” Sharon said.
But I wasn’t looking to do a follow up on Grace United, I just wanted to get Sharon’s perspective on inner-city violence. Was it getting better or worse? She told me a Peace with Justice Summit in the early 1990s had a very a positive impact on gang violence for some time, but later it came back.
“In the last few years I’ve seen a lot more gang activity,” she said.
The summer of 2012 she was picking up Chinese food at a drive-up window four blocks from her home at 5 p.m., and a young man reached in at her through her car window. Her doors were locked, and she was able to fend him off and get her window up, and drive away. As she looked back she saw he had several friends with him.
“I assume that was gang related, maybe some kind of initiation,” she said. “I was mad at myself, because I always try to stay very aware of my surroundings.”
That was Sharon, the living embodiment of grace. She didn’t express anger at the guy who was going to rob her, steal her car and quite possibly hurt her. She was mad at herself because she let him sneak up on her.
The long-distance runner finally crossed her finish line on March 5. Those who ran alongside of her know that she made a difference in so many lives. She is survived by many loving family members, including her brother Larry and nephew Kent, who are pastors of Oakton United Methodist Church.