Celebrating its 100th year this year, Wilkes Boulevard UMC certainly isn’t the oldest church in the Missouri Conference – some churches double that age. But it does hold the distinction of being the oldest new-church start.
Make that a restart. So what’s so new about it? The church still carries the same name, and is in the same historic building that sits catty-corner to the athletic fields of one of the largest high schools in the state. But over the course of the past four years the church has transformed, with the core of that transformation being the very purpose of why the church still exists at all.
Wilkes Boulevard was established to reach out to the community built around the Hamilton-Brown Shoe Factory. That factory closed in 1939, but the church was strong at that time, and the sanctuary was expanded in 1944. In the early 1960s it expanded again, and had a membership of nearly 800 and an average attendance of around 300.
Lately times haven’t been as bright. The church got down to about 60 in attendance, and wasn’t keeping up with maintenance on the building. The congregation recognized that they were in a cycle of decline that would quickly lead to the church no longer being sustainable. The church entered the Small Church Initiative process in 2009, but decided not to pursue consultations.
"The church knew they needed to develop a more outward focus and reconsider their vision, and they spent a year discerning this as a congregation,” said Wilkes Boulevard Pastor Megan Hegemann.
In 2011 the church adopted a new vision and values, and considered moving to a part-time appointment, or closing altogether. Finally, the church adopted the vision “To love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves.” And the values: “To pray, be real, be respectful, work on it, and change the world.”
Living into that vision wasn’t easy. Attendance dropped from about 60 to 30. But the church also began to step up and take one of the largest roles of any church in Columbia in terms of being in direct service to the most marginalized people in society.
Loaves & FishesIn 2012 the church voted to host Loaves and Fishes, the interfaith soup kitchen in Columbia. It had previously been located in a small apartment in a HUD housing development.
“It seemed like an easy win for us,” Hegemann said. “We had the kitchen and the space. All the volunteers and logistics were already in place.”
Wilkes Boulevard was already providing the meal once a month, so they stuck with that schedule. The rest of the month the meals were provided by other organizations, including other United Methodist Churches around Columbia. More than 70,000 meals have been served at Wilkes Blvd. since the program relocated there. The church is now about to begin a kitchen remodel to better serve Loaves and Fishes. The estimated cost is $80,000, and $75,000 is already in place, much of which was donated by other churches in Columbia.
Missouri Conference Director of Congregational Excellence Bob Farr notes that this was the beginning of a transformation which involved two things developing at the same time – Wilke Boulevard was starting to hone in on revitalizing the church, and there was also an emerging ministry rapidly developing around helping people in poverty and addressing social justice.
“Sometimes churches have an emerging ministry like a soup kitchen or a shelter, and it’s just something that they allow to take place in their building,” Farr said. “With Wilkes, they said, ‘This is who we are’.”
Wilkes Boulevard voted to accept their prescriptions from their Small Church Initiative process, and the Missouri Conference Congregation Development Team opted to invest in Wilkes Boulevard as a church restart. “Wilkes Boulevard is doing the ministry that all United Methodist Churches say they want to do, but most of them aren’t doing it,” Farr said.
Making RoomThings can get complicated when restarting a small church, and simultaneously starting to serve as the primary church in helping ministries for a city of 115,000 people, but Wilkes Boulevard didn’t flinch.
In the winter of 2012/13 (the same year they took on Loaves and Fishes), the church hosted Room At The Inn, a cold-weather interfaith homeless shelter. Then during Lent of 2013, they did a sanctuary remodel. That meant Sunday mornings during Lent started with the wakeup of the 50 people in the homeless shelter/fellowship hall, and putting away the cots. The room was then set up for Sunday morning worship. Then after worship, it was set up for the Loaves and Fishes meal that night, after which the tables were taken down and the cots were set back up for the homeless shelter.
At times, though, the church restart and the ministry to the marginalized created some serendipitous situations. The sanctuary was remodeled by 47 volunteers, for a cost of about $10,000. Of those volunteers, 11 were people who were living in the church basement at the time.
The restart led them toward a different style of worship, which was very compatible with the emerging ministry that was assisting people in poverty. Brad Bryan has just started as worship leader at the church in a part-time associate pastor capacity, in order to give Hegemann more time for community outreach and long-term planning. The service is blended in style, with music provided by Bryan’s guitar, a piano and drums, and a mix of songs from current pop culture and classics from the United Methodist Hymnal.
The remodeled sanctuary has a fellowship area in the back with tables. The back rows of pews that were taken out to make room for the tables were repurposed into a coffee bar. Breakfast is served there on Sunday mornings at 10 a.m.
“People of all races and backgrounds cook together and eat together on Sunday mornings,” Hegemann said.
At the beginning of every worship service, the church stresses that it is open to all, and all have sinned and are in need of forgiveness.
That following winter, the cold-weather homeless shelter was moved to different locations. “Volunteers from other churches came here and were saying, ‘Our church is bigger than this, why can’t we do this?’” Hegemann said. “Having Room At The Inn here inspired the whole community to work together.” The ministry is now rotated between six different churches.
Turning PointAlthough it no longer houses people overnight, in the spring of 2014 Wilkes Boulevard became home to the city’s drop-in center. This happened much in the same way it started hosting Loaves and Fishes – the previous location had to close, and no one else wanted to take it on. But the organization behind it had lost its community support, because the center had a reputation for a being a violent hangout out. A new culture was adopted when it moved to Wilkes Boulevard, with an emphasis being put on the center’s mission to help people turn their lives around. A new name was established: Turning Point.
“There are now clear expectations for people coming here. It’s not just a hangout or a place to sleep off a drunk,” Hegemann said.
Bathrooms and showers that were added for the center were paid for by donations from other area churches and a grant from the Missouri United Methodist Foundation. At 1,000 square feet, the facility on the top floor of Wilkes Boulevard UMC is four-times larger than the previous drop in center the Columbia Housing Authority had been renting. It’s open from 8 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday. There is room for about 40 homeless and low-income people to rest, shower and do laundry. There is a private office space available for meetings, and people can use the facility for their home mailing address. There’s even an art studio, with art classes a couple of days a week.
Stephany Williams is the manager of Turning Point, and has seen the ministry double in size in the last few months.
“We serve about 70 people a day now,” she said.
“Pete” Peterman volunteers at Turning Point as part of a work therapy program he is participating in through the Veterans Administration. For much of his life he’s dealt with anxiety issues and has self-medicated with alcohol. His anxiety and addiction has made it challenging for him to get along with others. He’s now been sober several months, and he takes pride in his role as custodian at Turning Point.
“If it weren’t for God’s grace, I’d be dead. I’m a believer in that,” he said.
Jesse White also volunteers at Turning Point, providing guests with towels, razors and socks, and giving them information about social services in the area and low-income housing options. He’s joined by Tony Barnes, another volunteer who takes care of the laundry machines and the snack area. Both men also serve in a security role, patrolling the property. The church recently banned smoking on the property. A rule violation means a one day ban.
“I try to be as lenient as possible, and understand that people I’m dealing with may be in a different frame of mind than me,” Barnes said. “I treat this like it’s a job.”
SustainabilityWilkes faces the challenge that many churches, including church restarts or new starts in the Missouri Conference, face.
The places where churches are needed the most are usually areas of poverty, where the people in the neighborhood do not have the financial means to provide the church much support. And people that are new to church are not accustomed to being large givers. A small cash donation feels like a lot – it’s more than they were giving a few weeks ago before they were going to church. But it’s not enough to support a pastor, or maintain a large historic building.
But Wilkes is different than some inner-city churches, in that it is not deep inside a challenging neighborhood that people avoid out of fear. Most of the nearby homes are inexpensive, but it’s only a couple of blocks off of Providence, one of the busiest streets in town, and it looks out on one of the town’s three high schools. The church’s role in its outreach ministry has contributed to more people in worship. That increase comes both from people benefitting from the services, and from people who are choosing the church because they recognize the important role it is serving in the community.
“We’re starting to do a better job of diversity, and have been attracting some middle-class people with a passion for social justice,” Hegemann said. “The community as a whole is coming to know that we are meeting a need here.”
It’s not just economic diversity, the congregation is more racially diverse than most churches on Sunday morning. On December 7 the church took in four new members, an African American couple and a white couple. The church has initiated Listening Sessions, which aim to be reasonable conversations about difficult topics.
“It can be too easy for middle-class white folks to think they know what’s best for everyone else,” Hegemann said. “We’re trying to create a safe environment where people can hold their privilege in silence while they hear someone else’s perspective.”
100 MoreThe church celebrated its 100th year on November 23, with Missouri Bishop Robert Schnase preaching. “We think today not just of the tens of thousands of lives that have been shaped here in the last 100 years, but also of the children who have not yet been born who will have their most spiritually profound experiences in this place,” Bishop Schnase said.
In telling the story of the lost sheep, Bishop Schnase offered explanations of the parable and how it demonstrated the ease of nibbling your way lost, the relentless persistence of God’s love in reclaiming the lost and the joy that is created by that, and the need for shepherding the lost back to the flock. He reminded the congregation how Jesus Christ was associating with outsiders while insiders were grumbling.
“If you want to do the good shepherd’s work you have to stop grumbling and search for the lost,” he said. “We’re the ones who offer ministries of support so people can break through destructive habits that separate them from God. About 60 – 70 percent of the people in Columbia have no relationship with a church. That ought to weigh on us.”
Bishop Schnase described God’s grace as an initiating love, one that drives and pushes people into ministry wherever they are led, be it the streets or prison cells.
“God’s grace never gives up on anyone,” he said.
For more on Wilkes Boulevard United Methodist Church, go to http://wilkesblvdumc.org.