Changing Neighborhoods, Part 3
The average Protestant church in the U.S. was founded in 1940. Yours might be a little older or a little younger than that, but unless you’ve just moved to your current facility, chances are, the neighborhood around your church has changed a bit since its founding. The area might be poorer, richer, younger, more commercial, more diverse, or less religious. Urban decline and regentrification can result in a church that is notably out of step with the people around it. Long-time members may find themselves increasingly isolated (and fewer in number) as cohorts die, move away, or find the commute to their old neighborhood no longer reasonable.
The Changing Neighborhoods series highlights three congregations who have adapted well to the economic, cultural, and demographic shifts in their communities and are responding to the needs and expectations of their new neighbors. (Read Part 1 and Part 2.)
Reconciliation and Justice in the Inner City
Nestled in the shadows of apartment buildings in a steadily declining neighborhood, is Epworth United Methodist Church, dedicated to its mission of welcoming all in Jesus’ name, growing together in the Spirit, and serving God hand-in-hand. Over a century old, this building houses the church, the body of Christ, reaching out to the last, the lost, and the least.
The church’s origins can be traced to Epworth University, the first college in Oklahoma City. It was founded in the early 1900s as a federated organization supported by two major denominations of the Methodist church: the Methodist Episcopal Church (also known as the "North Branch”), and the Methodist Episcopal Church South. Reconciliation and justice were the fundamental issues that gave rise to Epworth’s birth and have remained the core that have sustained her for over 100 years.
When the federation between the two denominations was canceled, the school struggled financially until it declared bankruptcy and classes ceased in 1911. At that time, a portion of the University’s land was transferred to the newly chartered Epworth Methodist Episcopal Church South congregation. Young and old alike living in the neighborhood attended services on Sunday, learning about their religion in Sunday school classes and worshiping together in the large new sanctuary. Pictures still hang on the walls of the building showing classes of nearly one hundred attendees.
As an inner city church, the Epworth congregation began to face the same reality as many inner-city churches. Families moved to the suburbs to get away from changing neighborhoods and transferred their church memberships to newer, more modern congregations. And yet, some at Epworth continued ministering to the neighborhood by offering after school programs for neighborhood children and converting Sunday school rooms to offices for connected ministries in the neighborhood. Maintenance to the beautiful, historic building suffered, though, as church membership diminished and resources were devoted to outreach and mission.
In 1994, Epworth took a big step in her commitment to welcoming and affirming of all persons regardless of race, age, gender, financial status, or sexual orientation. Embracing her founding spirit of reconciliation and justice, this open, loving, well-established congregation of about thirty members welcomed over 100 Reconciling Methodists and in 1995, Epworth joined the Reconciling Ministries Network of the United Methodist Church, an organization seeking full participation in the church for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons.
With rejuvenated spirit, the congregation looked afresh at the neighborhood and examined how they could be church in the midst of urban decline. With open hearts, open minds, and open doors, the leadership of the congregation used creativity and discernment as the church reached outside as Jesus’ hands, meeting physical, educational, and spiritual needs in the surrounding community.
In 1996, Fundación Manos Juntas Medical Clinic (Joined Hands Foundation) was founded. The congregation’s initial idea was to have a small free clinic every Saturday, examine between ten and fifteen patients, and provide sample medications donated by various doctors. With this concept in mind, the clinic started in the small library of the church. As time went by, the number of patients increased, the sample medications were not enough, and the space became very limited. By 1998 we had expanded to the renovated church basement and had a dedicated room for the pharmacy. Today, the clinic treats around 120-150 patients each Saturday with the help of approximately forty-five volunteers. Manos Juntas Clinic offers free medical care to those in need regardless of insurance, income, origin, age, sex, race, or religion. Services include medical exams, medications, laboratory tests, management of chronic illness, and healthcare referrals if needed. In addition to providing the space for the clinic, at no cost to the foundation, the congregation provides hospitality services and clerical volunteers every Saturday.
In 1997, Epworth leased its education building to Positive Tomorrows for one dollar per year. Positive Tomorrows provides private, free education that cares for the special needs of Oklahoma City homeless children, kindergarten through 5th grade. The teachers, social workers, and volunteers nurture these children academically, socially, and emotionally, preparing them for a seamless transition into public school as successful students and citizens. Family Support Services ensures that the family unit as a whole has food, clothing, personal care items, and support, and helps families obtain housing, find jobs, and get back on track.
When public school is in session, Epworth’s building is alive with the sounds of Jets, an after-school program of Skyline Urban Ministries for children who need after-school care. It is free of charge for the participating families and offers a curriculum that teaches students conflict resolution, environmental awareness, volunteering, and in conjunction with Kids’ Café, healthy cooking and eating. Epworth houses this program at no cost to Jets and regularly opens our thrift store, LeShoppe, for the director to pick up items of clothing that a student may need. LeShoppe is stocked with items donated by the congregation and volunteers and is open every Saturday morning; clinic patients and neighbors alike can fill a bag for a buck.
Epworth continues to strive to follow in the reconciling ministry of Jesus as an inclusive, nurturing, justice-seeking community. We house Friends of Peace Pilgrim, a nonprofit, all volunteer organization dedicated to the publication and dissemination of the words of Peace Pilgrim, who walked more than 25,000 miles across the country between 1953 and 1981, spreading the message that we can overcome evil with good, falsehood with truth, and hatred with love. In 2010, Epworth joined V.O.I.C.E. (Voices Organized in Civic Engagement), a coalition of twenty-five congregations and non-profit groups that come together to foster real conversations about real experiences without ideological shouting matches, and then join together to more effectively work within the democratic process with civic leaders and public officials on issues of concern to families.
Working with the several organizations housed in this albatross/blessing of a building, the congregation continues to worship in its historic building and honor the contributions of the saints whose dream it was to reach out to the surrounding neighborhood in love and support.