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No longer a church but still God's house

No longer a church but still God's house

Editor's note: When a discontinued congregation vacates its campus because of declining membership, it may seem like a death knell. But some hear a clarion call to keep God's work in the house. Today we kick off a series of stories about church campuses retooled to continue ministry in the afterlife of a departed congregation. Look for more examples in the weeks to come.


Jim McClelland looks over refurbished gym he helped build in the 1950s
Jim McClelland looks over the former Wesley Memorial UMC gym he helped put together in his youth and admires how far Parker Street Ministries has come in helping young people. Photos by Susan Green.

LAKELAND – When Jim McClelland steps into the gym at Parker Street Ministries, the memories come back in torrents.

“I was here when this gym was built,” says McClelland, who in the 1950s was president of the Methodist Youth Fellowship at Wesley Memorial UMC.

“I was part of the group that hung the first basketball goals in this gym.”

McClelland’s ties to the former Wesley Memorial, which closed in 2009, go back three generations. His mother grew up in the church, and his grandfather, pastor of the former Myrtle Street UMC, started the building fund that led to construction of Wesley Memorial’s sanctuary in 1918.

He remembers the Sunday night youth meetings, when he played the piano or organ for worship. He can point across the street to a house where his mother lived in her later years, allowing her to walk to church meetings when her children no longer lived close enough to drive her.

When Wesley Memorial closed, McClelland had long since moved away. In 1961, he took up studies at Georgia Technical Institute and went on to settle in Indiana, where he has been president and CEO of Indianapolis-based Goodwill Industries since 1974.

But he kept up with news of the church through family and friends. He remembers reports of the final months, when about 50 or so worshipers trickled in on Sundays.

Exterior view of Parker Street Ministries, formerly Wesley Memorial UMC
Parker Street Ministries staff maintains the look of a church as it operates in the former Wesley Memorial UMC. Executive director Tim Mitchell says he even installed a church bell to chime the hours.

“They were just trying to keep the doors open,” McClelland recalls. “We were all kind of hoping it would stay open.”

The congregation at Wesley ceased to be, but the building never really closed. A budding young ministry aimed at giving disadvantaged kids a leg up through education and neighborhood revitalization had already taken root in a small part of the church campus.

“We were involved with this church even when it was the church,” reflects Tim Mitchell, executive director of the Christian nonprofit Parker Street Ministries. From the time the ministry started after-school tutoring there in 2006, church members would peek their heads in from time to time and ask if anything was needed.

“It was a neat thing,” Mitchell says. When the sad day of the final Methodist worship service came, Parker Street staff mourned right along with congregants.

“Almost our whole staff went to the last church service. It was kind of symbolic – the torch was passed to us to keep on doing God’s work here.”

In a way, the loss of the congregation paved the way for tremendous growth in the neighborhood ministry.

At the time the congregation vacated the building, Parker Street was using four classrooms to provide after-school help to 38 kids in kindergarten through eighth grade (K-8), said Kim Schell, the ministry’s communications director.
"It's a big, loud representation
 of Christ's love."

- Tim Mitchell, Parker Street Ministries
Five years later, the ministry has spread out over 10 classrooms that accommodate 100 kids in K-8, plus 15 to 20 high school students.

Classrooms have been equipped with Internet access so that students who don’t have service at home can access online textbooks for study or take tests online as required, as well as use the ministry’s computers to research and write papers for school.

Most of the young people accepted into the program are working a grade or two below level in public schools, Schell said. They receive help in math and language arts and last year, she said, the program boasted a 98 percent passing rate.

The diversity of kids attending Parker Street, including a high minority representation, reflects the surrounding neighborhood, Schell added. Most families receiving services are headed by single mothers younger than 40 with “extremely low” incomes, she said.
School bus drops kids off for tutoring at Parker Street Ministries
A school bus stop at Parker Street Ministries makes it possible for working parents to send their children there for after-school tutoring. Below, children make their way to the ministry, where they can use computers and get help with homework.
Students head to Parker Street Ministries for after-school tutoring
Parker Street also advocates for better neighborhood conditions, taking on housing rehabilitation and beautification projects as well as working with landlords to boost standards for rental property. The staff also has advocated for safer bus stops.

Last year, more than 1,000 volunteers logged almost 9,400 hours at Parker Street, including trash cleanup, painting curbs to help emergency responders and repairing damaged or aging porches on homes.

“We want this neighborhood to take care of itself,” Schell said. “We are trying to build leadership skills in some of the older kids.”

To that end, Parker Street includes a leadership series in its eight-week summer camp for teens. Students are encouraged to participate in work projects.

The sanctuary has not gone empty, either. Parker Street renovated the space for use as a multipurpose room that hosts community gatherings.

During the school year, children attend chapel services once a week there, and daily devotions occur during summer camps. Recently, a local church began holding worship services there as well.

Mitchell listed other improvements the ministry has made, including renovating the kitchen, installing showers for student athletes and fencing in the courtyard so that kids can play there safely. Currently the ministry is seeking funds for a new roof for the gym and a gas-powered generator.

“We’re in the process of trying to be a storm shelter site,” Mitchell said.

“It’s been a tremendous gift to us to continue this ministry,” he said. “This church has kind of really turned into a community center. … The neighborhood would consider it theirs.

“It’s a big, loud representation of Christ’s love.”
Parker Street receives support from at least two United Methodist churches, as well as churches of other denominations, Schell said. Some former Wesley Memorial members come back for tours.

McClelland is among those who have moved away but stop by when they’re in town. Schell said Parker Street benefits from insight he shares from his long career with a nonprofit organization.

“I dropped by a couple of years ago,” McClelland said. “I was just curious. … What they’re doing here is really terrific. It’s a wonderful reuse of these buildings. The fact that they’re dealing with people and families in a holistic manner is really significant.”

“I think it’s such a great fit,” he added. “It ties into the whole mission of the church, anyway.”

For information about Parker Street Ministries, click here.

-- Susan Green is the managing editor of Florida Conference Connection.