Sometimes when a church uses its building as a way to reach out to the surrounding community, it changes not only the members of the church and the community, but the building as well.
Last November, Grace Church in Muncie completed the construction of a commercial kitchen in a disused part of its parish hall. Once all the new appliances arrive and the pandemic has passed, the new facility will allow the church to intensify its outreach to the community by offering food service and cooking classes, and incubator space to entrepreneurs trying to get started in the food services business. But the construction wouldn’t have happened if the church had not taken a risk 13 years ago and started Gathering Grace, a once-a-week hot meal program that draws guests primarily from single room occupancy hotels and shelters on the southeast side of town.
“It’s the most important work we do, and it is a particular way of opening this parish into the community,” says the Rev. Dr. Paul Jacobson, the church’s rector.
The Gathering Grace meal program began on Fridays in 2008, but adjusted its schedule when the program’s leaders learned that no free meal programs were available on Sundays, a day when the hardship for hungry people was complicated by the fact that buses were not running. After that shift, the program began to grow until the parish was serving more than 100 hot meals each week. The program has continued on a grab-and-go basis during the pandemic.
“The people that came and the people at Grace Church doing the meal, we kind of clicked,” says Barbara Wills, who, with her husband Phill, was among the founding volunteers. “We would know their first name. We would know a few little things about them. We were very welcoming to them.
“I think the people that came felt very safe about being welcome no matter what they had done or no matter who they are. If you aren’t willing to do that, it isn’t going to work.”
Grace, Muncie’s experience illustrates a point Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows has made frequently during her episcopacy—most recently in interviews with the Faith and Leadership website and Sacred Places magazine—that adapting church buildings for mission can weave a parish more closely into the life of its community.
“Whenever I go around the diocese, I’m asking parishes how they are using their buildings, what’s their footprint, who are their partners,” Bishop Jennifer says. “We discuss opportunities to use buildings in new ways. I assume that some kind of collaboration is possible.”
The diocese is rife with examples of such collaboration. St. Thomas’s Church in Franklin plays host to a health clinic on Wednesday mornings and some Saturdays. St. Stephen’s in Terre Haute serves as a warming shelter and is home to the Manna from Seven feeding ministry. St. Matthew’s in Indianapolis, another church with a commercial kitchen, is in partnership We Run This Culinary Entrepreneurship program and a number of other churches offer feeding or emergency food programs. Last year, St. Stephen’s in New Harmony paid off the mortgage on its parish hall, a venue for community meetings and arts events, after raising community donations.
At Grace, Muncie, the possibility of constructing a commercial kitchen had been discussed for several years before parishioners decided to act. But when they did, things happened quickly, says Mary Mordue, a longtime parishioner who wrote some of the grants that made the new kitchen possible.
The parish raised more than $170,000 in a 15-month period beginning in October 2019. A capital campaign, led by parishioner Ellen Brinkman, accounted for most of that total, helped along by gifts from former parishioners and grants from the diocese, the Ross Family Foundation and Indiana Landmarks. Construction began in August 2020 and was finished in November.
Mordue says that 18 years ago when church members voted to renovate their downtown building rather than move to a more upscale location, not everyone could say why the choice had been made. “When this program got started, it made a lot more sense this is why we’re here,” she says. “If we were outside of Muncie, we couldn’t have catered to the people we are catering to now.”
She and four other volunteers are currently receiving the training required to act as supervisors in a certified commercial kitchen. Mordue has also offered a cooking class in the church’s old kitchen to participants in Forward S.T.E.P.S., a program of Second Harvest Food Bank, and hopes to continue doing so in the new one.
“We do have visions that the kitchen might be used for more than just the Gathering Grace Sunday meals,” she says. “We just are starting to make the meal program a 501(c)(3)[nonprofit organization], right now. We are not just talking in terms of the meal program, but in terms of food insecurity.”
Making good use of its buildings isn’t new at Grace. The parish’s former rectory is currently leased to the Alpha Center, which provides adult day care. The second floor of the church’s Tudor Revival building served for about eight years as the headquarters for Teamwork for Quality Living, a forerunner of the Forward S.T.E.P.S program, that merged in 2016 with Second Harvest. The church is now looking for another community organization to lease that space.
“I want to make us more of a visible concern seven days a week so people, even if they are not Christian or not Episcopalian, will know there is a place of solace here,” Jacobson said.
The diocese received a significant boost in its efforts to make better use of its bricks and mortar resources in October when it was awarded, in collaboration with the Diocese of Northern Indiana, a three-year $1 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc.’s Thriving Congregations Initiative. The program is designed to help congregations become more integral parts of their communities by sharing space in church buildings with community partners.
The initiative will be led by a half-time program director, and one of its tangible outcomes, according to the grant application, will be “a web-based inventory of all unused and underused space across all parishes, organized to make searches easy for church and community leaders.”
The project is intended to serve as a national model for other Episcopal dioceses and mainline judicatories in the United States. Parishes looking for a model could learn a lot from the experiences of Grace, Muncie, where the rector counts himself among the people whose lives have been changed by their experience of Gathering Grace.
One day last year, while perusing the Episcopal Church’s Office for Transition Ministry website, he came across the profile posted by Grace, Muncie. In response to a question about a moment of success and fulfillment, the parish related the story of a man named Ted, who was not a member of the congregation, but who baked cakes each week for Gathering Grace. Before he died, Ted asked if his memorial could be celebrated amongst this community, and the parish obliged him. The service was celebrated with Ted’s family and friends, Grace’s neighbors and parishioners and regular guests from the meal program.
“It was very meaningful to come together in worship with Ted’s family, friends, and neighbors, and our parish, to realize what our outreach with Gathering Grace was doing,” the profile said.
“I read those words, and I said, ‘I want to go there,’” Jacobson says. “That was the hook for me.”
Jacobson was serving a church in Connecticut when he read the profile. He became rector at Grace, Muncie in July.